State Department’s new undersecretary was in a Gaza tunnel when boss was fired



State Department’s new undersecretary was in a Gaza tunnel when boss was fired

Sidelined by Tillerson, whose firing caught her in a terror tunnel during a trip to Israel, Heather Nauert now finds herself nearly atop Foggy Bottom

Then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — When the ax fell on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his spokeswoman was half a world away, a distance he and his inner circle preferred and enforced.

Now, it’s Tillerson who’s on his way out after his unceremonious firing by President Donald Trump, and Heather Nauert whose star is ascendant.

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Nauert are among the few women in the Trump administration with high-profile voices on foreign policy. Only three State Department officials — all men — now outrank Nauert, a former Fox News anchor who declined comment for this story.

Nauert’s meteoric rise comes even though just a week ago she seemed not long for the job. Then Tillerson lost his.

US Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson speaks during a joint press conference with Jordanian foreign minister in Amman on February 14, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / Khalil MAZRAAWI)

She was denied the kind of close access to the boss that all recent successful State Department press secretaries enjoyed. So Nauert tried to defend Trump’s top diplomat and explain his activities to reporters from around the world without being able to travel on any of Tillerson’s international trips or attend most of his Washington meetings.

Frustrated at being sidelined, Nauert almost quit several times. She had been telling associates she was ready to move on.

The moment that Trump canned Tillerson by tweet, Nauert was in a Hamas-built tunnel on the border near the Gaza Strip, on a tour organized by the Israeli military to show US officials the smuggling routes used by militants. Caught by surprise by the move back in Washington, Nauert and the rest of the delegation cut the tour short and returned to Jerusalem to deal with the crisis. Soon, Trump also fired the undersecretary of state who publicly defended Tillerson.

Palestinian terrorists from the Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, squat in a tunnel, used for ferrying rockets and mortars back and forth in preparation for the next conflict with Israel, as they take part in military training in the south of the Gaza Strip, on March 3, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The president named Nauert to that suddenly vacant position, near the top of the hierarchy of American diplomacy.

Nauert told associates she was taken aback and recommended a colleague for the job. But when White House officials told her they wanted her, she accepted.

The new role gives Nauert responsibilities far beyond the regular news conferences she held in the briefing room. She is overseeing the public diplomacy in Washington and all of the roughly 275 overseas US embassies, consulates and other posts. She is in charge of the Global Engagement Center that fights extremist messaging from the Islamic State group and others. She can take a seat, if she wants, on the Broadcasting Board of Governors that steers government broadcast networks such as Voice of America.

Less than a year ago, Nauert wasn’t even in government.

Nauert, who was born in Illinois, was a breaking news anchor on Trump’s favorite television show, “Fox & Friends,” when she was tapped to be the face and voice of the administration’s foreign policy. With a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she had come to Fox from ABC News, where she was a general assignment reporter. She hadn’t specialized in foreign policy or international relations.

It was almost clear from the start that Nauert wasn’t Tillerson’s first choice.

She resisted the ex-oilman’s efforts to limit press access, reduce briefings and limit journalists allowed to travel with him. Tillerson had preferred Genevieve Wood at the conservative Heritage Foundation, according to several individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss Tillerson’s personnel decisions.

When Nauert arrived at the State Department in April 2017, she found relations between Tillerson and the diplomatic press corps in crisis. No longer were there daily briefings that had been a State Department feature for decades. Journalists accustomed to traveling with Republican and Democratic secretaries for decades found they were blocked from Tillerson’s plane. Department spokespeople had no regular access to Tillerson or his top advisers.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, August 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Shut out from the top, Nauert developed relationships with career diplomats. Barred from traveling with Tillerson, she embarked on her own overseas trips, visiting Bangladesh and Myanmar last year to see the plight of Rohingya Muslims, and then Israel, after a planned stop in Syria was scrapped. Limited to two briefings a week, she began hosting a program called “The Readout” on State Department social media outlets in which she interviewed senior officials about topics of the day.

All the while, she stayed in the good graces of the White House, even as Tillerson was increasingly on the outs. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders described Nauert as “a team player” and “a strong asset for the administration.”

Sarah Sanders speaks during the daily briefing at the White House, on March 12, 2018, in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO)

And she didn’t shy from taking on foreign foes.

“The idea that Russia is calling for a so-called humanitarian corridor, I want to be clear, is a joke,” Nauert said at one recent briefing where she took Moscow to task for its actions in Syria, where it has used military power to support President Bashar Assad’s government.

Such comments have earned her the wrath of Kremlin officials and state-run media. Faced with pointed questioning by reporters from Russian news outlets at her briefings, Nauert often has lashed out, accusing them of working for their government.

“You’re from Russian TV, too. OK. So hey, enough said then. I’ll move on,” Nauert told a reporter last month after Russian President Vladimir Putin presented an animated film clip showing a missile headed toward the US

The comment sparked an intercontinental war-of-spokeswomen.

“If the StateDept dares to shun our journalists alongside with calling them Russian journalists one more time, we will carry our promise. We will create special seats for so called ‘US journalists,’” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova tweeted.

It didn’t end there.

First, the Russian Embassy in Washington congratulated Nauert “and, of course, all female employees” of the State Department on International Women’s Day. Nauert responded with gratitude and a dig, saying Moscow should use the day to “live up to its international commitments & stop bombing innocent men, women & children in #Syria.”


U.S. Has Issued Its Highest ‘Do Not Travel’ Warning for 5 Mexican States  




Updated: January 11, 2018 11:19 AM ET

The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning Wednesday advising Americans to avoid five states in Mexico, putting the regions at the same level of danger as war-torn Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.

The level 4 “do not travel” risk is the highest warning and applies to the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacán, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas on the eastern Gulf.

“Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread,” the advisory reads.

TIME Graphic by Lon Tweeten

Guerrero has suffered from a long history of violence. In 2014, 43 students were abducted and killed in Guerrero state. Last week, a police shootout left 11 people dead. In the travel advisory, the State Department warns that, “Armed groups operate independently of the government in many areas of Guerrero. Members of these groups frequently maintain roadblocks and may use violence towards travelers.”

Criminal organizations also operate heavily in the state of Sinaloa. In 2016, the infamous cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested and extradited, but violence remains in the power vacuum of his drug empire.

Last year, Mexico’s homicide rate was the deadliest on record, according to the Guardian, with 23,101 murder investigations opened.

Mexico overall was given a level 2 warning, which means travelers should “exercise increased caution.” Eleven additional Mexican states received a level 3 warning, meaning “reconsider travel.”

The country’s main tourism destinations — Cancún, the Mayan Riviera, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Riviera Nayarit, and Mexico City — have no travel restrictions, Mexico’s tourism secretariat said in a statement.




US envoy said to ask State Department to stop calling West Bank ‘occupied’



US envoy said to ask State Department to stop calling West Bank ‘occupied’

Washington reportedly refuses David Friedman’s request to change terminology, but Trump will have the final say

American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a meeting of the lobby for Israel–United States relations at the Knesset, July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a meeting of the lobby for Israel–United States relations at the Knesset, July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has reportedly asked the US State Department to stop using the term “occupied” in official documents referring to Israeli control over the West Bank.

According to a report by the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday, the State Department refused.

However, due to pressure “from above” the two sides agreed that the issue will be discussed again and that US President Donald Trump will have the final say, the report said.

Friedman has in the past run afoul of his State Department superiors over his views on the West Bank.

In September, the US State Department publicly rejected remarks he made pertaining to Israel’s presence in the West Bank as not reflective of the administration’s stance.

At the time, spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters that Friedman’s comments in an interview with the Hebrew-media Walla news website, in which he said he considers West Bank settlements to be part of Israelshould “not be read as a shift in US policy.”

Earlier the same month Nauert was forced to clarify another statement Friedman made to Israeli media, in which he referred to Israel’s “alleged occupation” of the West Bank.

“Our position on that hasn’t changed,” Nauert told reporters. “The comment does not represent a shift in US policy.”

A general view of the West Bank settlement of Beit El near Ramallah, February 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

In the past, Friedman has been a staunch supporter of the settlement movement. Before taking up his post as ambassador, he served as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports the large West Bank settlement near Ramallah, and he has a long history of excoriating groups who criticize Israel’s settlement policy.

Friedman’s reported directive came weeks after Trump shifted decades of US policy and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6.

In an address from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue. The president described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Agencies contributed to this report.


U.N. General Assembly Votes Against Trump-Israel On Jerusalem Issue



The United Nations General Assembly moved Thursday to repudiate President Trump’s controversial declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump threatened to withhold aid to countries that vote for the resolution.

The measure, drafted by U.S. ally Egypt, urges nations to support U.N. resolutions dating to 1967 when Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan, that call for Jerusalem’s status to be decided through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel says a united Jerusalem will remain its capital, while Palestinians want it to cede East Jerusalem as the capital of a future, independent Palestinian state. Only a handful of countries recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, while most others maintain embassies in Tel Aviv.

The resolution says “that any decisions and actions which purport to have altered, the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council.”

Trump warned Wednesday that the vote could impact “billions of dollars” in U.S. aid.

“Let them vote against us, we’ll save a lot,” Trump said. “We don’t care. This isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars and nobody knows what they’re doing.”

Americans are “tired of being taken advantage of” at the U.N. “and we’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer,” Trump said.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Trump for threatening to cut off U.S. funding to countries that oppose his decision. “Mr Trump, you cannot buy Turkey’s democratic will with your dollars. Our decision is clear,” Erdogan said at a cultural awards ceremony in Ankara on Thursday.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley threatened the 193 U.N. member states and the United Nations with funding cuts if the assembly approves the draft resolution rejecting the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. She said Wednesday that “no vote in the United Nations will make any difference” on the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, which will go ahead because “it is the right thing to do.”

“We will remember it when we are called upon once again to make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations,” Haley said. “And we will remember when so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit.”

Haley also threatened Tuesday to “take names” of countries that vote in favor of the measure.

At the UN we’re always asked to do more & give more. So, when we make a decision, at the will of the American ppl, abt where to locate OUR embassy, we don’t expect those we’ve helped to target us. On Thurs there’ll be a vote criticizing our choice. The US will be taking names.

Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement also said the State Department had been ordered to begin the years-long process of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Trump said the decision, following a law passed by Congress in 1998, does not impact the borders of Jerusalem, but reflected the reality that Israel considers the city its capital.

His announcement was widely condemned in capitals around the world, and provoked deadly protests in the Middle East.

More: U.S. vetoes U.N. resolution on Jerusalem

More: Jerusalem Palestinians still seek Israeli citizenship despite Trump declaration

More: Trump’s Jerusalem plan signals to Palestinians — the less you give up, the more you lose

Thursday’s vote at an emergency meeting of the General Assembly comes after the U.S. vetoed the same measure in the Security Council on Monday.

The remaining 14 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, including key U.S. allies such as Italy, Japan, Britain, France and Ukraine.

While the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China — had veto power in the first vote, there are no vetoes at the General Assembly.

The General Assembly vote expresses widespread disapproval, however, it has little or not practical impact.


Russian News outlet RT has registered as an agent of a foreign government in America



Why has RT registered as a foreign agent with the US?

A man tries on a VR goggles at the stand of Russia's state-controlled broadcaster RT during the 10th Russian Internet Week in Moscow on November 1, 2017.Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image captionA man tries on a VR goggles at the RT stand during Russian Internet week

News outlet RT has registered as an agent of a foreign government in America, after years of accusations that it was a propaganda arm of the Russian government. So what is RT and why has it become the subject of fierce debate in the US?

It was a late February afternoon when millions of Americans’ phones and laptops started buzzing with breaking news from the White House.

“Gen Flynn was fired amid the scrutiny…”

“The White House national security adviser fired…”

President Trump had asked National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to leave the White House, said the reports. Flynn had misled Vice-President Pence about his contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

It was the first resignation in the new presidential administration. But one media outlet, RT, reported it differently: “General Flynn retires as National Security Adviser”

Misleading headlines are only one part of RT’s approach to news, which makes the American government and analysts believe it is just an arm of the Kremlin.

What is RT?

RT, originally Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), began broadcasting internationally in 2005 in English, Arabic, and Spanish as a subsidiary of RIA Novosti, one of three Russian state-owned news broadcasters.

The broadcaster focused on Russia-related news reports and said its goal was to improve the image of the country in the US. At its launch, it promised a “more balanced picture” of what Russia is.

Several years later, it shortened its name to RT and began focusing on US news, positioning itself as an alternative to US mainstream media on both online and US cable television.

In late December 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin dissolved RIA Novosti and transferred all its subsidiaries to a new organization International News Agency Russia Today.

On the same day, Putin appointed a well-known but controversial media figure, Dmitry Kiselev, as the general director of the new organisation.

Dmitry KiselevImage copyrightAFP
Image caption Dmitry Kiselev and three other presenters interviewing Prime Minister Medevey in 2008

Mr. Kiselev was placed on the EU’s individual sanctions list in 2014 for being a “central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine”, including false claims of US State Department involvement.

He is also known for his homophobic views, including saying gay people should be banned from being blood or organ donors.

“In case of car accidents, their hearts must be buried or burnt and never used to save someone’s life,” he told Russian TV show in 2012.

A few American media personalities, the most prominent being Larry King, have presented programmes on RT America’s television network.

What’s the evidence of their Russian government connections?

“The edge between journalism and propaganda is very thin, especially, if we are talking about the media which is founded by the government,” says Lata Nott, the Newseum Institute’s executive director.

“Not all materials of RT are propaganda, but it is very clear that they have only one angle and they have never criticised their own government.”

RT’s major problem, Nott says, “is lack of transparency regarding sources of their budgeting”.

It is all very unclear.

RT uses production companies to produce content for an American audience. The company operates the same way in the UK.

The production company registered with the US government, T & R Productions LLC, is owned by Mikhail Solodovnikov. But a recent report by the Atlantic Council named two different production firms in the US, both owned by Russian-born businessman Alex Yazlovsky.

In the registration, Solodovnikov notes his firm’s funding comes from TV Novosti, and admits the Russian government finances the organization. But Solodovnikov also says he is not “sufficiently aware of who supervises, owns, directs, controls or subsidizes” TV Novosti.

RT doesn’t make its supervisory board public, according to the Atlantic Council report, and while it reports annually to the Russian Ministry of Press on its expenditures, their financial statements are not made public.

American intelligence agencies have a low opinion of the network. Ex-CIA director James Clapper has called RT “a mouthpiece of Russian governmental propaganda,” whose assets and executives are closely tied to Vladimir Putin.

An unclassified version of a January US intelligence report points to RT and Russian-backed website Sputnik as a key part of Russian interference with the US election, arguing the outlet served “as a platform for Kremlin messaging”.

“The Kremlin staffs RT and closely supervises RT’s coverage, recruiting people who can convey Russian strategic messaging because of their ideological beliefs,” the report states.

It also details close links between editorial management and the Russian government and cites RT and Sputnik’s ramping up of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton stories around March 2016, including Russian talking points that Clinton’s election would lead to a war between US and Russia.

What happened between RT and Twitter?

Twitter recently banned RT from advertising on the platform, citing the CIA report, said they will invest $1.9m they received from the outlet from advertising to support research into limiting misinformation on the platform.

However, RT Twitter accounts are not banned from Twitter.

Sean Edgett, acting general counsel at Twitter,Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image captionSean Edgett, acting general counsel at Twitter, answered questions in front of Congress last week

RT has accused Twitter of “forgetting to tell the US Senate it pushed RT to spend big bucks on election ad campaign”, sharing an advertising pitch Twitter had made to RT, and accused the platform of being part of a “coordinated attack on Russian media and freedom of speech”.

What’s FARA and why is the US government forcing RT to register?

The US government requires all agencies, individuals and organizations controlled or funded by international governments and undertake a political activity, to be registered with the justice department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara).

Fara began as a reaction to attempts by Nazi Germany to spread propaganda inside the US. In the 1940s, the Soviet news agency TASS and later newspapers Izvestia and Pravda were registered as agents of the Soviet government.

Since the law was enacted, 221 Russian companies have registered as foreign government agents, including a travel agency, a postal service, and numerous financial institutions.

RT claims that it is a “publicly funded” media outlet, similar to the BBC or Germany’s Deutsche Welle and would qualify for an exemption.

But to prove the exemption, the Atlantic Council writes, RT would need to disclose its finances, board members and show evidence of editorial independence from the Russian government.

Other international media outlets are registered as agents of foreign governments, including China Daily, NHK Cosmomedia, and KBS Korean Broadcasting System.

This week, RT decided to register under Fara.

“Between legal action and registration (as a foreign agent), we have chosen the latter,” tweeted RT editor Margarita Simonyan.

“Congratulates the US [on its] freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it,” Simonyan added.

Registering as a foreign agent doesn’t mean RT will be forced to stop broadcasting, but it will need to label all US material “on behalf of” the Russian government.

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Hundreds of Iraqi Christian Families Forced to Flee Again After Resettling



Hundreds of Iraqi Christian Families Forced to Flee Again After Resettling in Town Liberated From ISIS

(PHOTO: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH)Displaced Iraq Christians who fled from Islamic State militants in Mosul, pray at a school acting as a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, September 6, 2014.

Hundreds of Iraqi Christian families who recently returned to their hometown after being displaced for years by the Islamic State were forced to flee again from a town in northern Iraq because of conflict between Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

A source with knowledge of the situation told The Christian Post that hundreds of families in the Kurdish town of Telskuf were warned by the Iraqi army on Tuesday evening to flee the town because Iraqi forces were planning to retake the Kurdish-controlled town with heavy weapons and shelling on Wednesday after skirmishes and gunfire broke out during the day on Tuesday.

About 1,000 Christian families had settled back into the town, which lies about 20 miles north of Mosul, after it was liberated from the Islamic State a year ago. The town has been viewed as somewhat of a model for the return of Christians to their ancient homeland in the Nineveh Plains.

But after the warning from the Iraqi army, nearly all of the Christians who had returned to Telskuf after being displaced from their homes fled their hometown again and sought shelter in the town of Alqosh. According to the source, the only people who stayed in Telskuf were a priest and a handful of people who worked for the local church.

Although they were forced to evacuate in preparation for a military showdown, the source told CP many of the Christian families were in the process of returning to the town on Wednesday afternoon after external diplomatic pressure applied to the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi government created an “uneasy peace.”

“After a lot of outcry from a number of different quarters, people are moving back to the town from Al Qosh,” the source explained. “There is kind of an uneasy peace and a hope that this will be resolved without conflict in the town.”

“This is the town that the Hungarian government put $2 million into rebuilding and was the model for repopulation minority communities and towns that had been [taken over] by ISIS,” the source added. “As you can imagine, the Hungarians are not happy about this town being in the line of fire. Nobody wants this to be collateral damage in a contest between these two entities. It’s a Christian town and you have the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army fighting over it and the people who had just faced genocide and just moved home are going to be the unintended victims here.”

Carl Anderson, head of the Catholic-fraternal organization and advocacy group Knights of Columbus, said during a speech at the 2017 In Defense of Christians solidarity dinner in Washington, D.C., Wednesday night that the U.S. government played a role in helping defuse the situation in Telskuf. Anderson made the remark before introducing keynote speaker, Vice President Mike Pence.

“We are very grateful that just this evening American government involvement was able to stop the planned battle for Telskuf — a town in Nineveh recently liberated from ISIS and rebuilt with a $2 million grant from the government of Hungary,” Anderson said. “The destruction of that town could have been in a very real way, the beginning of the end of Christianity in Iraq. There are so few towns left that every one of them is precious. While the peace is fragile, we are grateful for our government’s attention to this issue. We hope that the vice president will convey our gratitude to the president for this action.”

Although tensions have been lowered in Telskuf, the source told CP that “it’s touch-and-go and it could still go sideways.”

“If this had gone really badly, people there were saying that this would basically be the end of Christianity in Iraq,” the source asserted. “If a Western government-rebuilt town where everybody had moved home after the genocide — the big success story — went upside down, how could people see any future there?”

Displaced Christian communities in Iraq have had a hard time resettling to their hometowns because they have experienced a shortage of funding and have received very little, if any, resources from the U.S. government and the United Nations to rebuild the infrastructure in their towns.

Although the Hungarian government, the Knights of Columbus and other humanitarian organizations have supported rebuilding efforts in some Iraqi Christian communities, advocates have cried out for foreign governments to provide more support.

On Wednesday, Pence answered that call, telling a roomful of Christian leaders from the Middle East that President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. State Department to provide aid directly to faith-based organizations and other groups serving the displaced Christian and other religious minority communities.

“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence explained. “The United States will work hand-in-hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted.”

According to Kurdistan 24, four civilians were injured by shelling from an Iranian-backed paramilitary allied with the Iraqi forces in Telskuf on Tuesday. Two of those injured were Christians.

U.S. State Department Warns Citizens Against Going To Mexico Tourist Locations Because Of Violence



The U.S. State Department has warned its citizens about traveling to Cancun and Los Cabos, two of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, after a surge in violence in those regions.

A travel advisory issued Tuesday upgraded the warnings for two states, Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, saying turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime and shootings in which innocent bystanders have been killed.

For years, both regions were largely insulated from the drug war violence that has engulfed other parts of Mexico, but this year they have each seen a major uptick in killings.

There have been deadly gun battles in downtown Cancun, and in January, five people were killed at a nightclub in nearby Playa del Carmen. In Los Cabos, a municipality on the Pacific Coast that includes the cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, three people were shot to death this month at the entrance to a popular beach.

The travel warning could deliver a major blow to Mexico’s $20-billion-a-year tourism industry, which represents about 7% of the country’s gross domestic product..

“This is a very bad news for Mexico,” said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, director for the Center for U.S.-Mexican studies at UC San Diego, who said recent growth in Mexico’s tourism industry has been a rare bright spot in an economy that quaked after President Trump’s threats to tear up free trade agreements and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the rapid increase in development, especially in Los Cabos, may have helped contribute to the violence, Fernandez de Castro said, as migrants from around the country came to build new hotel rooms and resorts.

“The growth of Los Cabos has been way too accelerated in the last two years,” he said. “It’s creating a little bit of social chaos.”

The State Department’s decision to warn residents about travel to the resort cities “is a reality check for the booming towns and economy of Mexico,” he said.

Mexican officials have gone to lengths to portray the country’s beach resorts as family friendly and safe. Violent incidents “are extremely rare among the millions of international tourists who visit Riviera Maya each year, and the entire tourism industry works to ensure the safety and satisfaction of all visitors,” reads a statement on the website of the Assn. of Riviera Maya Hotels.


But 10 years into the country’s military-led drug war, violence is surging across the nation. This year, Mexico is on track to record more homicides than in any year in the last two decades.

Rising demand for heroin in the U.S. and power struggles among the country’s top drug cartels, authorities say, have led to an increase in killings in 27 of Mexico’s 32 states.

In Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun is located, 169 killings were reported from January to July, more than twice as many as during the same period last year.

In Baja California Sur, home to Los Cabos and Cabo San Lucas, 232 slayings have been reported this year, nearly four times as many as during the same period last year.

Although tourism from the U.S. dropped off about five years ago during another period of high violence in Mexico, it has substantially recovered, with the number of American visitors increasing 12% from 2015 to 2016, according to the World Tourism Organization. Mexico recently surpassed Turkey to become the eighth most popular travel destination in the world, drawing 35 million international visitors last year.

Tourism officials in the Riviera Maya, the 140-mile-long stretch of Caribbean coastline that includes Cancun as well as Playa del Carmen and Tulum, have already been on the defensive this year after reports that a young woman died after drinking tainted alcohol at a resort.

The State Department also issued a warning in response to those reports, cautioning vacationers to drink alcohol in moderation and seek medical help if they begin to feel ill.

Montenegro joins NATO as Russia turns furious


Montenegro joins NATO as Russia turns furious

ONCE the Balkan stronghold of pro-Russian sentiments, tiny Montenegro was yesterday silently celebrating its entry into NATO in a historic turn that has made the Kremlin furious.

Despite the Russian anger and a deep split within the nation of some 620,000 people over the issue, Montenegro is formally becoming the 29th member of the Western military alliance at a ceremony in Washington yesterday.

To get there, Montenegro has stood up against its former ally Russia, which has sought to maintain strong historic, political and cultural influence in the Slavic country it considers a special zone of interest.

The US State Department said Montenegro’s membership “will support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability with all of its neighbors.”

Russia has threatened economic and political retaliation, including a campaign to undermine the Montenegrin tourism industry, which relies heavily on Russian visitors. An estimated 200,000 Russians visit Montenegro a year and 80,000 Russians own property in the country.

Russia has also banned imports of Montenegrin wine and recently deported a ranking official from a Moscow airport.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently warned potential Russian tourists that “there is an anti-Russian hysteria in Montenegro.”

“We do not rule out the possibility of provocations, arrests for suspicious reasons or extradition to third countries” of Russians, Zakharova said.

Montenegro says Moscow was behind a foiled coup attempt in October that allegedly targeted former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who was the driving force behind the country’s NATO bid. Russia denies involvement.

“One of the reasons we are joining NATO is to create greater stability, not only for Montenegrin citizens, but also for foreign investors and tourists,” Djukanovic said. “Therefore, our goal is to bring even more Russian tourists.”

Hekmatyar Calls Taliban to End ‘Pointless Unholy War’



Hekmatyar Calls Taliban to End ‘Pointless Unholy War’

Kabul — In his first speech after his first public appearance in Afghanistan after nearly two decades underground, warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar called on Taliban insurgents to “join the peace caravan and stop this pointless unholy war.”

He also urged all political parties to reconcile and seek change “without bloodshed.”

In September last year, the Afghan government signed a peace agreement with Hekmatyar and his militant group. In February, the UN Security Council lifted the sanctions imposed on Hekmatyar, which paved the way for his return to Afghanistan and involvement in the political process.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Hekmatyar’s public return, saying the former strongman would cooperate with the government.

“Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return will have remarkable effects on peace, stability, prosperity and development in all aspects,” Ghani’s office said in a statement.

The agreement between Hekmatyar and Afghani government has been criticized by human rights groups because of the pardon he was granted. Afghani analysts and activists stated that the return of Hekmatyar and some of his fighter is an insult to the victims.

Hekmatyar was controversial during the Afghani war against the Soviets in the 80s. He was accused of ordering his fighters to bomb Kabul causing several casualties. He was Afghanistan’s prime minister for two brief periods, however, he did not rule Afghanistan sitting in Kabul.

Hezb-i-Islami led by Hekmatyar does not have any significant role in the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan currently. He was designated as a “terrorist” by the US state department in 2003.

Western and US officials praised the deal reached with Hekmatyar, hoping it would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement in Afghanistan.

During his speech, Hekmatyar focused on ending the current war in the country and urged the Taliban to adopt politics rather than war.

No one can rule the country by force, he said.

“If you are working to help Afghanistan, then we are grateful, but if you are fighting here for your own political and economic interests, we ask you to stop using Afghanistan as your rivals’ battlefield and instead face each other directly,” Hekmatyar said to the gathering in Mehtarlam, the capital of Laghman. “Don’t test your ammunition on our oppressed people.”

He stressed that negotiations must be done to achieve stability and peace in Afghanistan, saying that violence and war are not options. He addressed his opposition saying that everyone should forget the past and work together to build a country based on peace.

Hekmatyar’s return was welcomed in eastern Afghanistan by residents who have been exhausted by decades of war.

Between 1992 and 1996, he was known as the brutal warlord who destroyed entire neighborhoods during the civil war, and later took up arms against civilian rulers.

After the September 11 attacks in the US and the ensuing US invasion, Hekmatyar refused to join the new government and declared “Jihad” against foreign troops.

Some analysts believe that his return will further deepen the sectarian and ethnic disagreements thus creating more problems for the government.

Political analyst Ahmad Saeedi said that the Ghani will face more isolation from the allies who supported him during the elections. He added that disagreements between politicians of different ethnic groups are beginning to emerge.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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Amaq – 24/7 News Agency Run by ISIS


Latest News, Middle East, World

Amaq – 24/7 News Agency Run by ISIS

Al-Qaida chief, Osama bin Laden, had used in the past recorded video and audio messages in far-off hideaway and sent them to international television networks by the aid of his supporters, in order to claim responsibility for the 11 September attacks, 2001.

Today, ISIS which plays the role of a well-known terrorist threat to the West, sponsors its very own Amaq news agency, issuing dispatches on a 24-hour news cycle by the use of mobile technology. ISIS claimed responsibility on Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels through the agency itself, stationing reports in two languages, consequently, in English and then Arabic in a detached journalistic style without images or statements from its leader.

Noting that the news agency is named after a Syrian town mentioned in an ancient prophecy; as the site for an apocalyptic victory over non-believers.

Very much aware of the propaganda value of outlining itself as a militant in an uneven struggle, Amaq stated that the attacks were part of a broader war with an international coalition.

Charlie Winter, a senior research associate at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said that Amaq is an effort to grab “information dominance” over enemies. The latter stated by phone, that the agency is being used as a part of a wider propaganda strategy in the first place, and also used for tactical and strategic gains, in the second place. Winter added that the group is “very keen on having a very centralized message.”

Initially, Amaq uses WordPress blogging platform to send out press releases and reports, however today the agency is willing to implement encrypted technology to evade ever-tighter monitoring of social media.

The agency, first appeared in late 2014 when ISIS was making an effort to take over the northern Syrian city of Kobani from its Kurdish defenders, part of an offensive that also saw the group establish a presence in large swaths of neighboring Iraq. Amaq also was the tool ISIS used to claim power over the couple responsible for the shootings last year in San Bernardino, California.

It can be said that he agency has played a leading role in rapidly moving the ISIS propaganda machine beyond the barrage of comments provided by supporters on social media.

News from different world target countries are covered by Amaq, for instance the agency carries reports on events from Libya and Iraq to the Philippines, in 4 languages covering Arabic, English, French and Russian. However, it abstains from publishing videos of beheadings and other graphic images of ISIS actions, which in other words deliver more intelligent messages, such as in its labeling of suicide bombings as “martyrdom operations.”

It’s referred to within the ISIS administration as an “auxiliary” media unit, said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum based in Philadelphia. It tracks conflict and the provision of services in provinces the group rules, but isn’t branded with ISIS symbols.

“They’re a part of ISIS, a full part of the media strategy,” he said by phone, adding that it’s unclear who heads the operation and from where. An application developed by Amaq called Arawi, which means a storyteller or narrator in Arabic.

There are many others ways that are being adopted by ISIS to communicate with those who are supporters, including encrypted Telegram Messenger Service, prompting Telegram to remove multi-user “channels” that members complained were promoting the terrorist group.

ISIS adoption of new platforms could be a consequence of a crackdown by tech companies. Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Austin, Texas-based strategic advisory firm Stratfor, said that ISIS had a very strong presence on twitter until the site moved to reduce its presence.

Certain ISIS attempts to invent media portals have not been successful to attract big numbers of followers, as in the case of an attempted social-media network called Kilafahbook. However, its drive toward the latest technology did not stop. Following Brussels attacks the group called for “brothers in Belgium” to use encryption and “stay away from social media.”

It seems like ISIS has strong confident ambition that can go the encrypted route, and ironically so far it seems to be working, said Tricia Bacon, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington and former State Department counter-terrorism official. As for Intelligence agencies, they don’t appear to have failed at some point and not had much success detecting electronic communications as ISIS plotted the attacks in Belgium or the earlier assault on Paris, she said.

“There’s going to be a lot of variation in who’s able to keep up and who’s not,” Bacon said. “Belgium has not been able to keep up, as evidenced by the attacks.”

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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