Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Six anniversary of Libyan 17th February revolution celebrated in Tripoli not in Benghazi

Friday the 17th of February marks the sixth anniversary of the Day of Rage that helped begin the revolt that overthrew the regime of Muamar Gaddafi. Many Libyan cities are preparing ceremonial activities to commemorate the event.

Tripoli municipality has been preparing Martyr's Square in downtown Tripoli for a ceremony marking the anniversary with thousands expected to gather in the historic square to chant support for the 17th of February revolution. The celebrations actually began yesterday with the opening of part of the Tripoli International Airport that was destroyed in conflict between the Zintan brigades loyal to eastern commander Haftar and Libya Dawn forces as described in a recent DJ article. The Libya Observer says:
In line with bringing happiness to Libyans in good times as these of the revolution anniversary, the Libyan Salvation Government of the General National Congress, headed by Khalifa Al-Ghweil, inaugurated the reopening of the Tripoli International Airport on Thursday amid a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of the revolution in the presence of several officials and businesspersons as well as revolutionary fighters.Given that Al-Ghwell is a coup leader against the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) supporters of the GNA are unlikely to be happy at seeing this opening part of the celebrations. There are already some tweets describing the celebrations in Tripoli. One tweet says: "Thousands of people flock to #Tripoli’s Martyrs Square to celebrate the 6th anniversary of the 17th February Revolution"
In the east of the country the situation was entirely different. One of the key cities in which the revolution began had no celebrations at all. Alaraby reports: "In Benghazi, pictures being shared on social media show that the Freedom Square, an area where gatherings usually centre, remained completely empty on Friday. " Two other cities Bayda and Tobruk the seat of the House of Representatives (HoR) government also banned demonstrations. All are under control of General Haftar who at one time supported Gaddafi but turned against him after he was double-crossed and abandoned by him. Haftar said the celebrations were canceled for security reasons. Marwan Younis, spokesperson for the Tobruk city council said: "Celebrations of the anniversary of the February revolt are canceled until all Libyan lands are liberated from the grips of terrorism." The HoR, however, did issue a statement on the anniversary saying it served to remind Libyans of the sacrifices they made for freedom.
The Libya Herald published a rather pessimistic article on the celebrations. The Herald claims that even those who supported the revolution are in little mood to celebrate and that , "they are struck by the constant recurrence of negativity pervading the capital." The Herald quotes Tripoli resident, Khalil Gharghum, who opposed the revolution as saying: “I never loved Qaddafi, but I thought from the start it was just a conspiracy shared by other countries to destroy Libya and take over its resources.” Mohamed Sultan, a freelance journalist from Tripoli who supported the revolution said: “The revolution is a principle I will never give up. But I will not celebrate due to the awful circumstances we are seeing that include women being raped and the kidnapping of children. All the beautiful things we created have been destroyed in the name of revolution and religion.”
There is an obvious split in Tripoli between those who support Ghwell and those who support the GNA and PC head Serraj. Residents are also disappointed in the failure of the UN-brokered GNA's inability to provide basic necessities. There is a fear that conflict could break out between anti-Haftar and Haftar forces. It is also possible that there will be conflicts between forces loyal to Ghwell and those loyal to the GNA. Nevertheless as the appended video shows many celebrated in Tripoli.
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Attempted coup leader opens part of repaired Tripoli international airport

(February 16) Khalifa Ghwell, the prime minister of the Salvation Government presided over the re-opening of the Tripoli International Airport, in celebration of the sixth anniversary of the 17th of February Revolution that overthrew Muammar Gadaffi.

The airport used to be under the control of Zintan brigades which are allied with the eastern commander Field Marshall Haftar.
The brigades attacked the Libyan parliament in Tripoli in May of 2014 after Haftar began his Operation Dignity to clear Libya of all Islamists who opposed him. However, Islamists grouped together as Libya Dawn
clashed with the Zintan brigades and eventually drove them from the international airport that they controlled, and eventually the city of Tripoli. The brigades still control considerable territory to the west of Tripoli. Wikipedia notes:On 14 July 2014, the airport was the site of fierce battle as militias from the city of Misrata attempted to take control of the airport. The airport has been closed to flights since the clashes.[9][10] On 23 August 2014, after 10 days of clashes, Zintan forces, which controlled the airport, withdrew.[11] The Los Angeles Times reported that at least 90% of the airport's facilities, and 20 airplanes, were destroyed in the fighting.Actually only part of the airport was opened today the old terminal for Very Important Persons (VIP). The terminal escaped the 2014 destruction and has been rehabilitated and revamped and was presented as the new Tripoli airport.
The Salvation government was formed with the General National Congress (GNC) as its legislature after the elections of June 2014:The General National Congress (Arabic: المؤتمر الوطني العام‎‎) was a body formed by politicians from the blocs that lost the June 2014 elections in Libya. The GNC had appointed an alternative government for Libya, styled the National Salvation Government, which was led by Khalifa al-Ghawi. [3] The term Libya Dawn Coalition was used to refer to the armed groups and/or the wider political movement supporting the new GNC. The new GNC was one of the major sides in the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War from its formation August 2014 until its dissolution in April 2016.[2][4]
While Wikipedia speaks of the dissolution of the GNC in April of 2016 this is somewhat misleading. When the UN-brokered Government of National Accord(GNA)came to Tripoli the Salvation government lost most of its power to the GNA. The Libya Herald speaks of the administration of the Salvation government as vanishing and of Ghwell fleeing to Misrata. Eventually a number of members of the GNC met and accepted the Libya Political Agreement(LPA) and the GNA and then dissolved themselves and then met as the State High Council of the GNA as described in a DJ article. Ghwell and other members of the GNC rejected this meeting. So some of the leaders of the GNC still considered it as existing and not dissolved.
No one paid any attention until on October 14th last year Al-Ghwell along with others regained control of the Rixos hotel complex that had been the headquarters of the GNA State High Council. However, it had formerly been the headquarters of the GNC and the Salvation government but was seized by militia loyal to the GNA. Within a couple of days many of the Presidential Guards of the GNA defected to support Ghwell and the coup. Here it is four months later and the coup is still ongoing. On 5th of November, officials from the GNA were not allowed at the opening of a new power station only those from the Salvation Government. Just over a week ago, the Libyan National Guard(LNG) was formed a group of brigades many from Misrata that appear to be loyal to Ghwell and the coup.
At today's opening, all along the Airport Road security was provided by gun-mounted vehicles of the Libya National Guard or Misrata's Al Marsa brigade. While the Libyan flag flew at the main gate, one visitor told the Libya Herald that he felt he was in Misrata saying: “The guards, the officials – they were all from Misrata.” The Herald also claimed that many of the guests were those seen protesting against the GNA and its Presidency Council in Martyr's Square.
Mahmoud al-Zaghei, commander of the LNG was there along with many prominent Islamists and members of the GNC as were members of the Justice and Reconstruction Party. After the official opening of the airport by Ghwell, the party went outside to see the first plane land. Apparently, it was a small crop sprayer. The new passenger terminal is supposed to be built by Al-Sarih a local company.
The Libya Observer also covered opening of the airport. Al-Ghwell told the assembled crowd that the reconstruction work had been carried out in less than a year in record time. He said that the government, presumably the Salvation government, was embarked in reviewing bids for purchasing new planes. One wonders how his unrecognized government is able to get funding to buy planes and carry out reconstruction projects. Al-Ghwell said: “We will contact international companies to buy security equipment for the airport to secure passengers. We will make the most of the strategic location of Libya and make it a hub for transit trade." The airport is expected to be operational by mid-March. A source said that reconstruction at the passenger terminal had reached 60 percent. The foundation stone for reconstruction was laid back in March 2016. Al-Ghwell also claimed that the Salvation government would introduce a plan to develop air transport to increase national revenue. One wonders how all this can happen without any intervention by the authorities of the Government of National Accord. The opening is actually a day before the February 17th Day of Rage that started the rebellion against Gadaffi.


US may send ground troops to Syria conflict with the Islamic State

A anonymous defense official told CNN that the U.S. Defense Department might suggest that the U.S. send conventional ground troops to Syria in order to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State there.

CNN quotes an official as saying: "It's possible that you may see conventional forces hit the ground in Syria for some period of time." The ultimate decision is up to President Donald Trump. Trump ordered his defense secretary, James Mattis, to create a plan to combat the Islamic State(IS) before the end of the month.
Up until now along with bombing raids U.S. military operations in Syria are made up mostly of Special Operation forces whose role is to provide training and assistance to groups fighting IS on the ground. The Obama administration has not recognized them as "boots on the ground" since they are not assigned a combat role. Presumably regular ground troops would have combat as part of their mission. At this point, officials claim that deploying ground troops is simply a point of discussion rather than being a formal proposal. What their exact mission would be has not as yet been made clear.
Obama was unwilling to take on the increased risk involved with sending in regular troops. There would probably be significant numbers sent and likely casualties that could cause negative reactions back in the U.S. If the decision to send troops were made it would show that Trump, Defense Secretary Mattis. and General Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are willing to take on more risk and increase U.S. involvement in Syria.
At his confirmation hearing Mattis was not asked whether he would put more troops into Syria. However, he did say:"I think it's getting there as rapidly as possible, where it would be a more accelerated campaign." There are also discussions about how troops are to be deployed in Iraq. Trump has directed his military leaders to fast track plans for defeating the IS. Leaked White House documents show Trump has expressed a willingness to enlarge the US presence in Syria.
Jeff Davis, a navy Captain and Pentagon spokesperson said: "We are in the process of conducting our 30-day review of the strategy to defeat ISIS as directed by the president. We are considering a number of measures to accelerate the campaign as part of that review, but no decisions have been made." Yet the Military TImes reports:However, multiple U.S. Army sources indicated that about two thousand soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team soon may bolster other Army elements already in the region. Currently, about 1,800 paratroopers from the 2nd BCT are in Iraq participating in the U.S. military's train-and-advise mission. The 82nd Airborne Division is based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
The issue of safe zones is also still under discussion. However, such zones could require up to 30,000 ground troops to reinforce and it could be quite unpopular both in the US and elsewhere. The proposal was outlined in an early draft of the executive order banning migrants from seven countries. It was removed from later drafts.
Obama set limits on how many troops could be in Iraq at one time. These limits are agreed to with the Iraqi government. At present, just 5,262 are allowed with 5,155 there presently. However, this figure is misleading as those in Iraq on a temporary assignment are not counted. Trump may want to do away with all limits and also count temporary units. This needs to be approved by the Iraqi government. There is also discussion of increased cooperation with the Russians and arming Kurdish groups in northern Syria that the US supports. Arming the Kurds may anger the Turks. The military was ordered by Trump to come up with proposals within 30 days that would facilitate the fight against the IS.


Monday, February 27, 2017

US and Canadian stock indices set records for 3rd consecutive session

(February 15) There may be mayhem in the political news market with Trump facing all sorts of criticism about some of his administration members' relationship with Russia. There are also constant complaints about the uncertainty of his policies.

Given all this furore and uncertainty, one would expect investors would be selling due to uncertainty and heightened risk. The markets should be plunging.. However, for three days in a row now the major S&P/ TSX Toronto index has hit new highs along with the three major indices in the US. Are there headlines and roars of approval from the press? No! It is barely worth mentioning. Even the business press appears not to bother headlining what one would think would be historic events for the business world. I could find nothing on You Tube about todays markets!
The S&P/TSX actually rose for the seventh straight day now. It was led by gains in the financial services sector after there was strong economic data from both the US and Canada. The TSX index rose 58.92 points to 15,844.95 or 0.37 percent. Michael Sprung of Sprung Investment Management said: "People are trying to run with the herd and I guess the big danger is that when you run with the herd you might get trampled at some point. One's got to be very conscious of valuation and what they're paying for securities." Manufacturing sales rose in December for the second consecutive month. US retail sales and inflation both rose in January sending bond yields higher.
Data showed Canada's manufacturing sales jumped in December for the second month in a row, and that U.S. inflation and retail sales climbed in January, helping to push bond yields higher. The higher yields reduce the value of insurance companies' liabilities and increase the interest margins for banks. Since the election of Trump on November 8 last year the financial sector has gained more than 14 percent. The TSX index has rallied more than 37 per cent since a three-year low hit in January last year.
Energy shares rose by 0.7 percent in spite of US oil stockpiles reaching record highs. However, US crude prices dropped by nine cents a barrel. The telecoms group rose a substantial 1.8 percent as Manitoba Telecom Services had its sale to Bell Canada Enterprises approved. Gold prices rose.
In the US the S&P 500 also notched up its fifth consecutive session of new highs. Investors are expecting that Trump will soon announce a cut in corporate taxes. There were larger than expected retail sales and consumer prices rose. Corporate earnings growth was the strongest in two years last quarter. At a recent meeting with top executives of US retailers, Trump promised that he would substantially lower taxes and simplify the tax code. He has also promised fewer regulations.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen indicated that the US Federal Reserve was likely to raise interest rates at an upcoming policy meeting. The odds for a Fed rate hike in March rose to 42 percent from 30 percent two days ago. The inflation rate for January was 2.5 percent. Brad McMillan of Commonwealth Financial Network said: "A year ago, if Janet Yellen had come out with the statement she made, the market would have freaked out because the fundamentals were very soft. Now, if the Fed raises rates it's not going to shake the world because people are confident enough about the fundamentals." Michael Shaoul CEO of Marketfield Asset Management said: “The January US CPI report is a strong set of data which justifies the belief that reflationary forces have been building within the US economy in recent months well in advance of any legislative program being enacted by the new administration.”
US financials rose 0.74 on the expectation of higher interest rates. The Dow Jones Index (DJI) rose 0.52 percent to 20,611.86. The S&P 500 had about the same percentage gain at 0.50 to reach 2,349.25. The Nasdaq added 0.64 percent to 5,819.44. Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies rose approximately 7.2 percent, the best expansion since the third quarter of 2014. For the first quarter this year, earnings are expected to grow even more by 10.7 percent.
Investors are obviously confident that the economy can stand higher interest rates. They are also expecting not only lower taxes and less regulation from Trump but also stimulus spending on infrastructure. There was a selloff in Treasuries while stocks reached new highs. The global MSCI index also closed at a record for the first time since may 2015.
Many in the Trump administration have connections to Wall Street. The US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is an ex-partner in Goldman Sachs. Mnuchin was confirmed on Monday. Mnuchin was finance director of Trump's presidential campaign. At one time Mnuchin also ran OneWest Bank from 2009 to 2015 which became known as a Foreclosure Machine due to its actions during the financial crisis. Part of his job is imposing sanctions but he said nothing about removing sanctions from Russia. Mnuchin said: "Our current sanctions programs are in place, and I would say sanctions are an important tool that we will continue to look at for various different countries … the existing policies are in place." Mnuchin claimed that Trump's plan to reduce corporate and income taxes would stimulate economic growth and enable the government to increase revenue to reduce the debt. He also wanted to increase the debt ceiling as soon as possible.
The investment community must feel that the Trump administration as a whole is pro-business. While some Trump policies may send parts of the liberal establishment into a tizzy, the investment community as a whole appears to find the Trump administration overall to be friendly toward Wall Street and corporate profits. Perhaps, as Nouriel Roubini predicts the stock market honeymoon with Trump will soon be over but as of now the markets continue up even while the political situation moves from crisis to crisis, at least if you believe the media.


Cairo meeting fails to come up with solution to Libya crisis

Egyptian government attempts to mediate a peace deal between Presidency Council (PC) leader of the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) Faiez Serraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) failed.

(February 15) The LNA is the armed forces associated with the rival government to the GNA the Al-Thinni House of Representatives (HoR) government. Haftar refused to meet with Serraj and Serraj flew back to Tripoli from Cairo. Mohamed Samir spokesperson for the Egyptian Army said that the two did agree that there should be parliamentary elections and a presidential election in February of 2018. However, the Libya Herald claims it was told by a source that although Serraj agreed to the proposal, Haftar did not. Ageela Saleh, said only that he would study the idea. Apparently the Egyptian spokesperson was manufacturing fake news!
Serraj and Haftar were supposed to join in a meeting Tuesday that would have been chaired by Egyptian president Abdel el-Sisi. Serraj waited patiently all day in his hotel while Egyptian intelligence officials pressured Haftar to accept a compromise. Obviously they did not succeed. Haftar refused to accept Serraj's plan for a three-man PC rather than the present nine. He also rejected the proposal to have the position of commander-in-chief to be held jointly by the head of the PC, the HoR, and the State Council plus a supreme military council that would include Haftar. Haftar wants to remain head of the armed forces of any new GNA.
Both sides agreed to set up a committee of 15 members each from the HoR and the State Council of the GNA to consider changes to the Libya Political Agreement(LPA). There is no mention of a meeting for the HoR to vote confidence in the GNA as is required by the LPA. Some time ago the UN envoy Martin Kobler insisted that the LPA can be amended only after the HoR accepts it as it is and votes confidence in the GNA. The Herald suggests that the failure could strain relations between Haftar and Egyptian authorities. I doubt that there will be any significant changes in Egypt's support for Haftar as Egypt sees it as in its interest to continue support for him. He also has Russia and the UAE behind him. Haftar has been consistent in his demands and his attitude towards the peace process. He thinks there is a military solution and has been constantly trying to strengthen his power as the GNA appears to weaken and even faces an attempted coup by the PM of the former Salvation Government that so far the GNA has failed to put down.
In an interview with Arabic newspaper, Serraj explained that there was no meeting between himself and Haftar in Cairo because Haftar insisted that Ageela Saleh take part in the talks, but Saleh had refused to meet Serraj. Saleh said: "The intransigence of each party has resulted in the stagnation of a political solution and has increased the suffering of the Libyan people." Saleh is already sanctioned by the US and EU for allegedly blocking a settlement of the Libyan crisis. In my opinion, Saleh simply follows whatever Haftar wants. Nevertheless, Serraj thought that dialogue would eventually find a way out and that he would announce a new way forward in the next few days. At the same time, Serraj said he doubted that any government formed in the present circumstances could gain HoR approval or public confidence. Given this assessment, it is hard to see how there can be any successful way forward.
Haftar and Saleh remain in Cairo in talks with Egyptian authorities. The former ambassador to the UAE and several boycotting members of the HoR have also been involved in talks. Tarek al-Jaroushi a member of the HoR who attended the talks said: "Seraj must return to the legitimacy of (the eastern) parliament if he really is looking for a Government of National Accord that secures the rights of all Libyans." The GNA does recognize the legitimacy of the HoR but it becomes the legislature of the GNA only once it approves the GNA.
The HoR last rejected the GNA on August 22 last year. Almost six months later there seems little progress in having the HoR and its armed forces join with the GNA. It remains to be seen if US president Trump will involve the US in this crisis.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

US intelligence community may be "out to get" Trump

Dennis Kucinich, a former presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, in an interview on Fox Business Network claimed that the US intelligence community was responsible for leaking information that led to the resignation of Mike Flynn.

Flynn was Trump's national security advisor. The leaked information showed that Flynn had discussed in secret with Russian officials sanctions imposed by the US. The discussing took place before Trump's inauguration. Kucinich argues that the goal was to worsen the relationship between Russian and the US. Trump has argued for improving US relations with Russia. Kucinich said:
“What’s at the core of this is an effort by some in the intelligence community to upend any positive relationship between the U.S. and Russia. And I tell you there's a marching band and Chowder Society out there. There's gold in them there hills. There are people trying to separate the U.S. and Russia so that this military industrial intel axis can cash in.”Kucinich even added that there are those within the intelligence community that are willing to separate the US and Russia in a way that could reignite the Cold War. It seems quite clear that the Cold War has been reignited ages ago especially since events in the Ukraine.
Investigative journalist Gareth Porter said:“Flynn is a figure with a dark side, but hype regarding an ‘illegal’ meeting with Russian ambassador never made sense. I’m glad he’s gone, but the leaks hinting Logan Act treason should be recognized as ‘intelligence community’ political manipulation. The Logan Act is a dead letter and even if it were not, the facts of this case don’t support its application. If it would apply to anything recent, the Logan Act would apply to the letter organized by Tom Cotton regarding Iran in 2015, but hawk Cotton never paid any price.”Glenn Greenwald noted in a tweet: “In January, Chuck Schumer warned Trump not to criticize the intelligence community because of all the ways they have to destroy people.” Schumer Democratic minority leader in the senate, said: “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”
Another article claims:Make no mistake: we have just witnessed an operation by members of the CIA to take out a high official of our own government. An agency widely believed to have brought down democratically elected governments overseas is now practicing the same dark arts in domestic American politics. Almost certainly, its new head, Mike Pompeo, was not consulted.
You can observe psychological warfare being carried out in the media. While Trump media supporters talk about the heinous nature of the fact there were leaks, the liberal anti-Trump media will howl about the heinous conversations between Trump officials and the Russians. Those who broke the law and leaked the documents are heroes for revealing the close relation of some Trump officials with Russia. Of course a different approach is taken to leaks by Edward Snowden which revealed CIA illegal spying. He is supposed to come back to the US and be tried. David Goldman writes:… the CIA has gone out of its way to sandbag Flynn at the National Security Council. As Politico reports: "On Friday, one of Flynn's closest deputies on the NSC, senior director for Africa Robin Townley, was informed that the Central Intelligence Agency had rejected his request for an elite security clearance required for service on the NSC, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation." Townley held precisely the same security clearance at the Department of Defense for seventeen years, yet he was blackballed without explanation. At DoD, Townley had a stellar reputation as a Middle East and Africa expert, and the denial of his clearance is hard to explain except as bureaucratic backstabbing.
Flynn had often criticized the CIA revealing intelligence and operational failures.
We can expect more and more revelations to back the narrative that not just Flynn but Trump have had treasonous dealings with Russia and Putin. The rush of establishment papers to print the latest revelations has little to do with news but everything to do with creating even more disapproval of Trump in the public mind. While there may be a degree of truth in the revelations about Flynn the leaking of the information is a sign that the intelligence community is attempting to control the political situation in the United States. They have plenty of experience overthrowing governments.
However, other parts of the deep state such as many in the Wall Street establishment may be hesitant to have the Trump administration go. It is after all a very pro-business government. Even today US stock markets again reached new highs. There are many members of the Wall Street elite within the administration. No doubt they hope that an accommodation can be reached between Trump and his administration with the intelligence community. However, it may be that Mike Pence is being prepared to replace Donald Trump.

Eleven US Republican Senators urge Trump to keep Guantanao operating

Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo during his campaign for president but when he left office on January 20th he still had not been able to keep his pledge.

It became clear as Obama's term neared its end that he was not going to be able to keep his promise to close the base or transfer out all the inmates. As a National Review article pointed out: " The president and his team have expressed frustration that it is now impossible for them to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close detainee operations at Gitmo, which he backed with one of the very first executive orders he signed upon taking office."
Fox News reported last November that Trump had said as long ago as last April "we're gonna load it up with some bad dudes believe me. We're gonna load it up." He also said that he would support trying US citizens accused of terrorism at the base. In order to do that he would need to change federal law and he could still face constitutional challenges.
Now eleven Republican senators are encouraging Trump not just to keep Guantanamo open but to send any new captives to the facility. Also they urge that the review board that can clear prisoners for release be suspended. In a letter to Trump released on Monday the group said: “As you consider policies and actions that may affect [Guantanamo], we want to express our support for maintaining and expanding the utilization of the detention facility during your administration by detaining current and future enemy combatants who pose a threat to our national security.” All eleven senators who signed the letter had been strong opponents of Obama's attempts to close the prison.
Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas organized the letter but it was co-signed by 10 other senators: Roby Blunt (Missouri); Tom Cotton (Arkansas); Jame Inhofe (Oklahoma); John Boozman (Arkansas); Tim Scott (South Carolina): Thom Tillis (North Carolina); Cory Gardner (Colorado); Pat Roberts (Kansas); Steve Daines (Montana) and Orin Hatch (Utah). Since Trump was inaugurated, drafts of an executive order have been circulating. The drafts order that Guantanamo be kept open, and calls for ISIS captives to be sent there. However, Trump has yet to sign an order.
Referring to Guantanamo by its military acronym GTMO the senators' letter said: “During your campaign and transition to the presidency, we were pleased to learn you share our perspective that enemy combatants affiliated with ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban and other foreign terrorist organization captured during conflicts involving our armed forces should be housed at GTMO.” The letter also demanded that the Period Review Board that decided whether detainees should be transferred should be immediately suspended as well as the transfers of five detainees that the board already cleared for transfer. The letter pointed out that the director of national intelligence's assessment was that 30 percent of detainees released have been confirmed to be or are suspected of being re-engaged as terrorists. They claimed that the board process was "dangerously flawed by subjectivity and broad interpretation". The letter concluded: “As we continue to engage in conflicts and combat operations around the world, the critical mission the GTMO serves in detaining terrorists who threaten the lives of not only our servicemen, but all American, cannot be stressed enough.”


Toronto and New York markets set new records again

(February 13) The Toronto stock market rose again today after setting records on Friday. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with U.S. president Donald Trump. They both vowed to strengthen economic ties.

The two issued a joint statement after the meeting saying that the two countries have similar priorities and this included the need to bolster trade. On the issue of modifying NAFTA, Trump said that his bigger concern was Mexico and he was only aiming to "tweak" parts relating to Canada in order to better facilitate cross-border trade. There is more than $2 billion in trade between the two countries each day.
Canadian markets strategist Craig Fehr said that the two leaders appeared to be on the same page on a number of issues including the mutual advantages of increasing trade between the two countries. Fehr said:"For those looking at it from a Canadian perspective, this meeting can perhaps be viewed as a sigh of relief — particularly when you compare it to what the rhetoric was on the (Trump) campaign trail where it was much more positioned as NAFTA being unilaterally a bad deal. This is a confirmation that campaign rhetoric was just that, and that the actual execution of any trade agreements or renegotiations are going to be far less harsh than what the original assertions may have suggested."
The Toronto stock market index the S&P/TSX set another record today following on a record close on Friday. It was up at the close to 15,756.58, up 27.46 points. Gains in metals are retail stocks more than offset some losses in the gold and energy sectors. New records were set for the third consecutive session in New York indices. The Dow Jones industrial average was up 142.79 points at 20,412.16, the S&P 500 was ahead 12.15 points at 2,328.25, and the Nasdaq composite rose 29.83 points to 5,763.96.
Fehr said that although Trump's meeting with Trudeau appeared to be one of the most successful he has had with leaders, it is still too early to know what will happen with NAFTA renegotiation:"It is too early. The press conference and the meeting is the first step in a long process of ultimately reaching trade deals over long periods of time that will be beneficial to both countries. We can't take today's meeting as the end point. It's probably more of a starting point, but it's a pretty good start in terms of setting the right tone for what a mutually beneficial relationship can and should be moving forward."Both oil and gas prices fell as did gold.
There are signs that might worry Trump. Many countries with large treasury holdings such as Japan are getting rid of them in large quantities. Supposedly, the world's safest debt market is being seen as less of a sure thing.
An article in BNN surveys CEO's of different companies on the situation. Paul Colborn, President and CEO of Surge Energy had no concern about a possible tax on goods coming from Canada: “I think [a possible border tax] is a real red herring. When I look at it, I think why would they approve the [Keystone XL] pipeline and tie in the biggest oil reserves on the planet for security of supply reasons? It makes no sense to me that there would be a big border tax.”
One company CEO Tom Leighton of Akamai Technology reacted negatively to Trump's travel ban: “The travel ban really runs counter to our culture at Akamai. Diversity and inclusion are very important to us. It makes it hard – or impossible – for some of our employees to travel, causing a lot of concern for our employee base and also our customers.”
Michael Decter president and CEO of LDIC Inc. that manages investment portfolios, thought that lower oil prices had produced a more disciplined energy sector and that Trump policies could send stock markets higher: "[Trump] has injected some unusual uncertainty into the business. But I often say to clients, many of whom as Canadians are not very keen on Mr. Trump as President of the United States, is that he may not be good for the world but he may be very good for the stock market and your portfolio. He is a very strongly pro-business president, he has a very pro-business cabinet." Decter held positions in both the Manitoba and Ontario New Democratic Party(NDP) governments.


NASA employee a natural-born US citizen has phone confiscated with demands for access PIN code at Houston airport

Sidd Bikkannavar a natural-born American citizen claims he was detained on January 30 at Houston International Airport. This was just days after new president Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven countries.

Bikkannavar works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His hobby is driving solar-powered cars and he was just returning from a race in Patagonia Chile. Bikkanavar did not expect to have any trouble going through customs. He not only holds a U.S. passport but he is also part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that allows pre-approved low-risk travelers expedited clearance. Instead of providing Bikkanavar expedited clearance they pulled him aside. They demanded that he turn over his work issued phone and access PIN code.
In response for a request to comment on the case, a CBP spokesperson said in an email:"U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) strives to treat all travelers with respect and in a professional manner, while maintaining the focus of our mission to protect all citizens and visitors in the United States. Due to privacy laws, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prohibited from discussing specific cases or personally identifiable information regarding the arrival or departure of international travelers. CBP officers are charged with enforcing not only immigration and customs laws, but they also enforce over 400 laws for 40 other agencies."Bikkanavar eventually turned his phone over to the CBP agents and was then sent to a holding area. Bikkanavar finally had his phone returned and was allowed to continue his journey back home.
The Jet Propulsion Lab issued him a new phone and are "running forensics" to determine if the CPB had taken any data or installed a device according to a NASA engineer. February 3rd a judge in Seattle suspended the order and an appeals court in San Francisco unanimously upheld the ruling. Between January 27 and February 1st at least 940 people were prevented from boarding a plane.
Other scientists have also run into trouble because of the Trump ban. Samira Samimi a University of Calgary doctoral student, was born in Iran but is a permanent resident of Canada. She was to go to Greenland to repair drained batteries that are used for equipment that is used to project future sea levels. She was to get a ride on a US Air FOrce C-130 Hercules leaving from upstate New York. Samimi said in an interview:“I came so far, from the other side of the planet, to be free, to not fight for my rights anymore. And this is like a nightmare. I don’t understand how in the 21st century one man can stop this science, stop it, just like that, so easily without even thinking. I’m just sick in my stomach. I don’t want to accept that I’m not going. I can’t do that. I just can’t. This is so stupid, this so doesn’t make sense."Alternative options would cost her as much as $100,000 in new funding. With the recent suspension of the order perhaps she will be able to go after all.
The International Council for Science advocates planners of scientific meetings to ensure that participation of scientists is free from discrimination of any kind. The Council issued as statement saying: "The Council believes that the complex problems of our world can only be solved through international dialogue, collaboration and the sharing and exchange of ideas and research findings." Canadian scientists are organizing to boycott conferences in the US as long as the ban is in force as discussed in a recent DJ article.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Joint US Afghan raid kills 22 civilians in Afghanistan

Both Afghan officials and local residents claim that 22 civilians mostly women and children were killed in a joint U.S., Afghan operation carried out in the southern province of Helmand.
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Jabar Qahraman , the presidential envoy for security in Helmand Province, said the raid against the Taliban killed 13 people from one family and nine from another. Qaraman said: “We are saddened to hear the news of civilians being killed. When the Taliban use civilians as their shield against security forces, such incidents occur.” The United States has yet to admit that there were civilian casualties:
U.S. Navy Cpt. Bill Salvin, a military spokesman, said “we are working diligently to determine whether civilians were killed or injured as a result of U.S. airstrikes” carried out to support Afghan forces in and around Sangin. The investigation is “continuing and has not reached any conclusions,” he added in a written statement.The U.S. does not usually admit at first that there were civilian casualties and does so only when evidence make the casualties difficult to deny. The UN mission in Afghanistan was less cautious as it expressed grave concern after initial inquiries showed the international forces killed at least 18 civilians nearly all women and children. Kareem Atal, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said a man, two women and two children who were wounded in the raid have been brought to Lashkar Gah the capital for treatment.
Hameed Gul a local resident who lost nine members of his family claimed it was all lies that they were attacking the Taliban he told the Associated Press. Helmand province has seen several months of heavy fighting with the Taliban. The Taliban have targeted the capital Lashkar Gah several times with suicide attacks. On Saturday, a suicide bomber targeting soldiers killed at least seven people.
General Nicholson the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan claims that the US needs to commit several thousand more troops to Afghanistan to break what he calls the stalemate there. It is questionable that there is a stalemate as the Taliban appear to be gaining ground. Nicholson told the Senate armed services committee that there was a "shortfall of a few thousand".
About 8,600 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan since the combat mission ended. The situation is now complicated by the rise of the Islamic State(IS) in Afghanistan. A recent attack claimed by the IS near the supreme court in Kabul killed at least 20 people.
So far, U.S. president Trump has had little to say about Afghanistan but on Thursday he spoke by telephone with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Trump was said to have stressed the importance of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership. A White House statement also said:  “The leaders discussed opportunities to strengthen the bilateral relationship in areas such as security, counter-terrorism co-operation and economic development.” When Nicholson was asked if Trump would be more willing than Obama to take into account the security situation in Afghanistan in deciding on troop commitment General Nicholson replied: “Yes, sir.” The general also suggested that US defense secretary James Mattis might visit Afghanistan in coming weeks.
General Nicholson in written testimony also criticized Russia whom he claimed was strengthening the Taliban and undermining NATO. In contrast, recent remarks by former president Karzai criticize the U.S. and claim that relations of Afghanistan with big powers and neighbors were better while he was president.According to Karzai, there was a thaw in the relations between world powers in Afghanistan when he was serving as president. But now, the ties between these countries are deteriorating.“I told President (Vladimir) Putin that I have worries about Afghanistan, the way the United States and the western allies are conducting the war on terror is not leading us to decrease extremism in our region or in Afghanistan, in fact we see rising extremism in Afghanistan in spite of the massive sacrifices and loss of resources,” said Karzai.There appears no sign so far that Trump is doing anything to repay Russia for its support. If Trump commits more U.S. troops to Afghanistan he will not be keeping his campaign promises not to get the U.S. involved in costly wars but will be following Republican and Democratic hawks in dragging the U.S. even deeper into the conflict once again.


Clashes break out between rival militias in Tripoli

(Febbruary 12) There were clashes between the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) led by Haithem Tajouri and a group of mostly Misratan fighters based in Tripoli commanded by Mahmud Baiyu who goes by the name Sharikan.

The Libya Herald reports that there were clashes between the two groups on Saturday in a southern part of Tripoli in the suburbs of Wadi Rabih, Ain Zara, Khala Al-Furjan, and Salahedeen. The clashes involved heavy weapons and tapered off only in the evening.
Locals claim that Sharikan moved to take a number of positions in Wadi Rabih that were held by the rival TRB. In fact it appears to be a turf war among rival militias. Sharikan was successful in the Khala Al-Furjan area. Sharikan is an ally of the Libyan National Guard formed just recently from brigades that are mostly but not all from Misrata. The group appears to be supportive of Khalifa Ghwell who was PM of the former Salvation Government and mounted a coup attempt some time ago. He has headquarters in the Rixos hotel complex. The group is discussed in a recent DJ article. Vehicle convoys of the Guards have entered Tripoli. Not surprisingly, the group is not welcomed by the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) or it Presidency Council (PC). A recent tweet says: "PC statement on National Guard " Outlaws and not Legitimate " "
The Herald reports:Today’s clashes mainly took place along the Wadi Rabih highway linking Swani and airport road in the southwest with Tajoura to the northeast of Tripoli. Sharikan’s area of influence extends from Swani and airport roads to the headquarters of the Man Made River complex at Wadi Rabih which he using currently as one of his bases. Tajouri’s zone extends from Tajoura down to the junction on the Wadi Rabih highroad leading to Ain Zara. The latter is also under Tajouri’s control.
The TRB has been involved in clashes before. On December 1st it clashed with and defeated an armed group associated with the Interior Ministry:The brigade said the reason of the attack is that the armed force was involved in murders, banditry, kidnap and smuggling the illegal immigrants despite the fact that the armed group is part of the Central Security Department of the Interior Ministry.
Just back on January 23rd, the TRB had warned that Tripoli could not bear further armed conflict. Tajouri's TRB is said to be the most powerful militia in Tripoli. At the time the TRB said the political process based on the Libya Political Agreement (LPA) is irreplaceable. However, there appears to have been no sign of much progress since the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) rejected the UN brokered Government of National Accord(GNA) on August 22 last year. On its media page the TRB wrote: “We demand everybody keep Tripoli away from their struggle, as its residents cannot bear any new armed conflict inside the city. We announce, as Tripolitans, that we have never assigned anyone to represent us at talks and we confirm that anyone who attempts to act in such a way is just a liar.” The group appears to want to retain a degree of independence from the UN-brokered GNA while at the same time expressing support for the LPA which spawned the GNA. With the new Libyan National Guard entering Tripoli in force and having a number of militia linked with it there is a grave danger of an outright war between groups. Khalifa Haftar and his eastern-based Libyan National Army would no doubt be quite pleased to see his opponents at each others throats.

Veteran's support group raises over $200,000 to support Standing Rock pipeline demonstrators

Veteran's Stand, a military veteran's organization has collected $213,500 to send supplies to the Standing Rock Native American reservation in North Dakota as part of a renewed campaign against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

The pipeline will cost $3.7 billion and run through four states. Critics claim it threatens the water supply of millions of people. The group wrote on Facebook: "We have continued to stay in contact with indigenous and camp leadership and have identified several areas where the Veterans Stand network can continue to serve the needs of the camp and local community."
Michael Woods, founder of the group said to CNN that it was unlikely the group will send a large group of protesters as they have done in the past. He said the group did not want to do anything aggressive in response but wanted to give people a platform. The secretary of communications of the group, Anthony Diggs, spent a week at the Standing Rock Reservation meeting with camp leaders arranging to send supplies and organize volunteers. Last year veterans raised more than $1.5 million to support protests.
The protesters thought they had won the battle when in December then-president Obama ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to look at ways to reroute the pipeline. Within 4 days of taking office new president Donald Trump signed an executive order to "get the pipeline built" and also restarted the process on the Keystone XL pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) the company building the pipeline said that work was beginning immediately and was expected to be completed in about 83 days.
A number of veterans are already returning to Standing Rock and have said they are ready to shield indigenous activists from attacks by an increasingly militarized police force. A number of veterans have already arrived at Cannon Ball North Dakota or are en route after hearing the news that Trump had allowed ETP to drill under the MIssouri river.
The presence of many veterans may make it more difficult for police to remove hundreds of activists who remain camped near the construction site and some hope that their presence will limit the use of excessive force by police. Elizabeth Williams, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran who arrived at Standing Rock late Friday said: “We are prepared to put our bodies between Native elders and a privatized military force. We’ve stood in the face of fire before. We feel a responsibility to use the skills we have.” There are wide differences as to how many veterans will show up. Some organizers estimate a few dozen are on their way but other activists are pledging that hundreds will appear in the coming weeks. In December it was estimated almost 1,000 had taken part in protests before Obama announced the government was denying a key permit. Some critics claimed the veterans were not well organized and not prepared to camp during the harsh winter conditions. Others complained that they did not follow directions of the aboriginals leading the movement.
Matthew Crane, a navy veteran who is helping coordinate a return group said that his group has vowed to be self-sufficient, and help the activists, who call themselves the "water protectors". He said the group intend to provide cleanup efforts, kitchen duties, medical support and even protection from the police if needed. Crane said: “This is a humanitarian issue. We’re not going to stand by and let anybody get hurt.” Jake Pogue, a 32-year-old marine veteran said as he helped organize a vets camp area: “We’re not coming as fighters, but as protectors. Our role in that situation would be to simply form a barrier between water protectors and the police force and try to take some of that abuse for them.”
Dan Luker, 66 year old Vietnam vet from Boston, who visited Standing Rock in December was returning. He said that for many vets, helping the water protectors was "healing". Luker said: “This is the right war, right side. Finally, it’s the US military coming on to Sioux land to help, for the first time in history, instead of coming on to Sioux land to kill natives.” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the Sacred Stone camp where Luker and others were setting up their own camp said that she welcomed the return of the vets. Allard said: “The veterans are going to make sure everything is safe and sound. The people on the ground have no protection.”
The protests have seen many arrested. Since last fall police have made roughly 700 arrests. Company private guards and police have been accused of using violent tactics. They have deployed water cannons in freezing weather, mace, rubber bullets, teargas, pepper spray and other less than lethal weapons.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Strange Dutch sculpture creature a big hit in Russia

Margriet van Breevoort who created the sculpture of an odd creature at the Leiden University Medical Center was surprised when her creation won the hearts of Russian Internet users.
The sculpture has been at the Leiden University Medical Center since Spring last year. Breevort called the sculpture "Homunculus Loxodontus" but when the photo of the creature spread to Russia it became known as "Zhdun" or "somebody waiting for something".
Breevoort told Sputnik:"I wanted to give it a scientific name, like a new species. Homunculus means 'little guy' in Latin, or 'artificially created human.' And Loxodontus is the scientific name for African elephant, referring to the snout." Zdhun is featured in the appended video. It is in Russian as are most videos of Dhun. No text is needed though! As you can see Zdhun definitely has a distinctive appearance. It has a big snout but also large kind eyes and is quite fat.
Breevort explained what motivated her:"I had to make something inspired by the LUMC, the medical center in Leiden, and I didn't want to create something about medicine or illness, but rather about the patients themselves. The way they just have to await their fate in the waiting rooms. About hoping for the best. I wanted it to be a kind of lovable companion, something or someone that gives comfort, but also makes you laugh. In this building, there is also a lot of medical and genetic research going on. So the way the sculpture looks is a bit of a joke towards this research. It's like a failed experiment or product of this research that is hoping and waiting to get better. Like a big, cute, partly human and huggable lump of flesh."
So the statue just sat there for about a year attracting no special foreign interest. Just this January a Russian woman who visited the hospital took a photo of the statue. She published the photo on Pikabu which is the Russian version of Reddit. The statue quickly became a sensation and a meme. Pictures of Zhdun went viral on Russian media and he was made a star in news stories and featured in famous paintings as shown on the appended video. Zhdun is even shown at the Yalta Conference along with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. There are also photos with Russian President Putin. Members of Tumblr have named Zhdun Snorp. According to this site "snorp" can mean many things. According to another site:On January 31st, 2017, Tumblr user hellyesbro[7] reblogged a picture of Zhdun sitting in a political meeting with the caption “adjusts microphone/ Snorp” (shown below). The post gained over 35,000 notes and led to the character being spread around Tumblr by the name Snorp.
Zhdun's Russian fans soon outnumbered Dutch fans. Breevort said: "I have been told it is so popular in Russia because they recognize themselves… They share the same mentality, always waiting. It was indeed a big surprise! I never saw it coming!" Breevort created a profile on VK.com and an official public community for Zhdun fans. She said that she spends most of her time at her laptop answering messages but says that she may have better prospects in the future as an artist because of Zhdun's success. According to one site: Homunculus has now taken up residence in a children’s hospital in the Netherlands, tasked with brightening up the lives of young patients.