Castro Out: Cuban Government Selects New Leader

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The Cuban government on Wednesday selected 57-year-old First Vice President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez as the sole candidate to succeed President Raul Castro in a transition aimed at ensuring that the country’s single-party system outlasts the aging revolutionaries who created it. The certain approval of Diaz-Canel by members of the unfailingly unanimous National Assembly will install someone from outside the Castro family in the country’s highest government office for the first time in nearly six decades, the AP reports. In what the AP initially called an “unusual two-day process,“ Diaz-Canel will officially take office Thursday; the new national leadership will be officially announced that day, the anniversary of the defeat of US-backed invaders at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. What to know:

  • More on the process: The Cuban National Assembly has generally met and selected the president in one day. Its votes are nearly always anonymous and seen as reflecting the will of the country’s top leadership. Cuba’s constitution allows for any member of the 605-seat legislature to be elected as head of the council of state, but Diaz-Canel had long been seen as the overwhelming favorite. The new president will take over for the 86-year-old Castro, who is stepping down after two five-year terms. The Candidacy Commission also nominated another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body.
  • The successor: Diaz-Canel gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. There, people described him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency. Most Cubans know their first vice president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent.
  • Castro out? Not entirely. Castro may be stepping down, but he isn’t giving up power. He remains head of Cuba’s Communist Party, a position that leaves him with broad authority—including much oversight of the man who is replacing him as president. He is expected to hold the position until 2021. Cuba’s single-party system gives the Communist Party a role vastly more important than in any multi-party country, and it’s often hard to tell where the party stops and government begins, reports the AP.
  • Echoing that: “This changing of the presidency from the hands of the aged Raúl Castro to the heir apparent, first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel, isn’t, as some believe, a momentous occasion,“ writes Fabiola Santiago for the Miami Herald. “It’s a symbolic one and a clever move, as it gives the perception of change when in reality the Castro family remains firmly in power. This maneuver only promises more of the same.“ But she still sees some cause for hope.
  • What change should come: In an op-ed for the New York Times, Christopher Sabatini sees the economy as a place where Castro’s successor can make his mark. Cuba has a dual currency system made up of a domestic peso and a separate international peso that’s used for foreign trade. “Unifying the currencies will cause upheaval in the economy, increasing the prices of imported goods and ending the double-booking system that many businesses use to keep themselves artificially solvent, leading to inflation and unemployment,“ he writes. But “modernizing and advancing the Cuban economy requires addressing this wrenching change.“ And the US should help, he argues.

Kim Jong Un tests Trump with latest nuke offer

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has finally broken his silence on what he plans to bring to the table during his summits with the South Korean and U.S. presidents, and it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with tossing out his hard-won nuclear arsenal.

Instead, Kim appears to be maneuvering toward his own big “get” — the chance to sit down with President Donald Trump on an essentially equal basis as the head of a nuclear-armed nation. The end of North Korea’s nuclear program, meanwhile, isn’t looking any closer than it was before.

Ending weeks of ominous silence from Pyongyang, Kim laid out the new strategy at a meeting Friday of his ruling party’s Central Committee that suspends underground nuclear tests and test-launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. He also said the country’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, already believed to be essentially inoperable, will be closed and “dismantled.”

North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of denuclearization that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to keep pursuing nuclear development unless Washington offers ironclad guarantees of its security and removes its nearly 30,000 troops from the Korean Peninsula.

This time around, Kim seems to be more flexible than he had been previously regarding the troops. His latest statement also echoed Pyongyang’s hope for security assurances and for the day when the world will have no nuclear weapons.

But it also unapologetically stressed that his country is now a nuclear power, and the message between the lines is that the United States should simply accept that and treat him as an equal.

Kim praised his policy of developing nuclear weapons as a “miraculous” success.” A resolution passed by the committee afterward went on to explicitly state North Korea’s promise to be a responsible nuclear power that would never use nuclear weapons “unless there are nuclear threats and nuclear provocations” against it.

Even so, the announcement, which also stressed Kim’s desire to turn his focus to economic development, played very well in world capitals.

Trump immediately took to Twitter to praise the announcement as “very good news for North Korea and the World.” Seoul and Beijing welcomed it. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a hard-liner on North Korea, tried to keep his response positive, though he stressed the need for vigilance to see what happens in the coming months.

For sure, Kim’s tone has changed.

Just last year, about the only messages coming out of Pyongyang were vitriolic threats of merciless retaliation and warnings of the gathering dark clouds of nuclear war. Now, Kim is claiming he can be more magnanimous because “a fresh climate of detente and peace is being created on the Korean Peninsula and the region and dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape,” according to the North’s state-run media, which reported the announcement on Saturday.

There is also a lot of room for positive results to come from Kim’s summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, set for next Friday, and Trump, expected in late May or early June.

The North and South may agree to allow more reunions for families that were divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, and Kim is reportedly open to releasing three Americans now in North Korean custody.

Experts point out that this is still Kim’s opening gambit. It’s possible he may be willing to offer more concessions once the real talking begins.

Then again, maybe not.

“Kim Jong Un just said, in effect, that North Korea is an arrived nuclear power and he will give up nukes when the rest of the world does,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “I sense that Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization has been greatly oversold.”

Diaz-Canel replaces Raul Castro as Cuba’s president

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Raul Castro said Thursday that he expected 57-year-old Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez to serve two five-year terms as president and eventually take Castro’s place as head of the Communist Party, potentially dominating Cuban politics until 2031.

It was the first time Castro has laid out a clear vision for the nation’s power structure after his retirement or death, a vision in which Diaz-Canel is Castro’s true successor as total leader of Cuba.

Castro left the presidency Thursday after 12 years in office when the National Assembly approved Diaz-Canel’s nomination as the candidate for the top government position. Diaz-Canel told the nation that Castro, 86, would remain the country’s ultimate authority as head of the Communist Party.

Speaking after Diaz-Canel, Castro said he expected the younger man to become first secretary of the party after Castro retires from the position in 2021.

“From that point on, I will be just another soldier defending this revolution,” Castro said.

Castro indicated that he expected Diaz-Canel to serve two five-year terms as head of the party, saying he envisioned Diaz-Canel guiding his own successor for three years after leaving the presidency in 2028.

In his half-hour speech to the nation, the new president pledged to preserve the island’s communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel said.

He said Cuba was, as always, prepared to negotiate with the United States but unwilling to cede to any of Washington’s demands for internal change.

He emphasized that reforms would follow a 12-year-plan laid out by the National Assembly and Communist Party that would allow moderate growth of private enterprise while maintaining the important sectors of the economy in the hands of the state.

With Castro watching from the audience, Diaz-Canel made clear that he would defer to the man who, along with his brother Fidel, founded and ruled for six decades what has become of one of the world’s last communist governments.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Facing biological reality but still active and apparently healthy, Raul Castro is stepping down as president in an effort to guarantee that new leaders can maintain the government’s grip on power in the face of economic stagnation, an aging population and increasing disenchantment among younger generations.

Diaz-Canel’s half-hour speech offered most Cubans by far their greatest exposure to the man long expected to assume the presidency.

Most Cubans know their first vice president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. That image changed slightly this year as state media placed an increasing spotlight on Diaz-Canel’s public appearances, including remarks to the press last month that included his promise to make Cuba’s government more responsive to its people, language he echoed on Thursday.

Diaz-Canel gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hardliners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes after he officially takes office on Thursday.

Two years after taking over from his ailing brother in 2006, Castro launched a series of reforms that expanded Cuba’s private sector to nearly 600,000 people and allowed citizens greater freedom to travel and access to information. He has failed to fix the generally unproductive and highly subsidized state-run businesses that, along with a Soviet-model bureaucracy, employ three of every four Cubans. State salaries average $30 a month, leaving workers struggling to feed their families, and often dependent on corruption or remittances from relatives overseas.

Castro’s moves to open the economy have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous shows of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens.

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offer only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor.

The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdez, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

State media went into overdrive Wednesday with a single message: Cuba’s system is continuing in the face of change. Commentators on state television and online offered lengthy explanations of why Cuba’s single-party politics and socialist economy are superior to multi-party democracy and free markets, and assured Cubans that no fundamental changes were occurring, despite some new faces at the top.

U.S. easing rules on sales of armed drones, other weaponry

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The Trump administration moved Thursday to make it easier for U.S. defense contractors to sell armed drones and other conventional weapons to foreign governments.

In policy changes aimed at boosting American firms’ ability to compete in the increasingly lucrative global arms market, the administration said it is removing restrictions that barred U.S. manufacturers from directly marketing and selling drones, including those that are armed or can be used to guide missile strikes, abroad. Previously, foreign countries had to go through the U.S. government to buy such drones. They will now be able to deal directly with the companies, although the government will retain oversight.

Despite Thursday’s changes, the government must still approve the sales by overcoming a presumption of denial contingent on human rights and proliferation considerations. Sales will also remain subject to congressional review.

Still, the revisions are likely to draw opposition from lawmakers and human rights groups that have long urged that military sales, particularly those of drones, be more restrictive rather than less. Administration officials said concerns about the potential for civilian casualties and the possibility that the weapons could be illegally transferred will be addressed in the review process.

In addition to the drone-specific changes to the policies, the revisions will add U.S. economic interests as a primary consideration in broader arms export control reviews. Among other things, that could allow foreign governments to get assistance to purchase U.S. weaponry they might not otherwise be able to afford, officials said.

Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, said the moves underscore President Donald Trump’s belief that “economic security is national security.” He noted that U.S. defense contractors support 2.5 million jobs and are responsible for nearly a trillion dollars a year in economic activity.

“Partners who acquire American weapons are more capable of fighting alongside us and ultimately more capable of defending themselves with fewer American boots on the ground,” he said. In addition, Navarro said the changes would blunt an increasing trend of countries choosing to purchase Chinese “knock-offs” of American military materiel or Russian systems that are cheaper but not of the same quality as U.S. products.

The new policies were announced a day after Trump said his administration was working to streamline approvals of arms sales to U.S. allies and partners.

“When they order military equipment from us, we will get it taken care of and they will get their equipment rapidly,” Trump told reporters at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida on Wednesday. “It would be, in some cases, years before orders would take place because of bureaucracy with Department of Defense, State Department. We are short-circuiting that. It’s now going to be a matter of days. If they’re our allies, we are going to help them get this very important, great military equipment. And nobody, nobody, makes it like the United States. It’s the best in the world by far.”

Sister of ‘Nut Rage’ Exec Has ‘Water Rage’ Incident

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Another daughter of a South Korean airline exec is in trouble after a public tantrum. Emily Cho, a senior VP of Korean Air, has apologized after an outburst during a meeting in which she threw water, or perhaps a water bottle, at or near a subordinate in a fit of anger, reports Reuters. Cho, also known as Cho Hyun-min, is the daughter of airline chairman Cho Yang-ho. But the reason the incident is generating so many headlines is because Cho also is the sister of Heather Cho, she of the infamous “nut rage” incident of 2014. In that one, Heather Cho forced a taxiing Korean Air jet to return to the gate because she had been served nuts in a bag instead of a bowl, and she wanted the chief flight attendant kicked off. Heather Cho not only lost her executive post at the airline, she was sentenced to a year in jail for endangering aviation safety.

The details of Emily Cho’s outburst are less clear, but the Chosunilbo reports that she threw a water bottle in the face of an employee of an ad firm that was doing work for the airline. The AP reports that she threw a cup of water, and the airline maintains that Cho pushed it on the floor, not toward the staffer’s face. “As I was focusing on my passion for the work, I was unable to control my thoughtless words and deeds, through which I caused injury and disappointment for a lot of people,” said Cho, who has been suspended from her airline post overseeing ads and marketing. Police are investigating the incident. Cho could face assault charges if investigators conclude she did indeed throw something at the subordinate’s face.

They Experimented on Live POWs. Now, Names Released

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It had the boring and bureaucratic name of the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department. But this secretive unit of the Japanese army during World War II—better known as Unit 731—conducted germ warfare and other lethal experiments on live prisoners of war, explains the Guardian. Now, at the request of scholars, Japan has for the first time released the names of 3,607 of those in the unit, a list that includes 52 surgeons, 49 engineers, 38 nurses, and 1,117 combat medics. The unit, developed in 1936 with the intent of developing biological weapons, conducted its experiments mostly in China on Chinese and Korean prisoners accused of espionage, reports the Japan Times. Its existence remained a secret for decades after the war, in part because the US and its allies did not want the work made public.

Among other things, doctors would inject the plague into victims, deliberately cause frostbite, and deprive prisoners of food and water to observe the effects, per the AFP. Surgeons also would perform operations on live prisoners as if they were lab rats. “The list is important evidence that supports testimony by those involved,“ says Katsuo Nishiyama, a professor at Shiga University of Medical Science. He said he hopes its publication will lead to more information about the unit, which conducted experiments with 20 different kinds of bacteria, including anthrax and smallpox. By one estimate, 3,000 people died at the hands of the unit. One tangible result: Nishiyama will be pushing to have a university degree revoked from at least one medical officer whose dissertation is believed to have been based on the human experiments.

Massive Rescue Operation Finds Headless Doll

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An apparent headless body that prompted a major police operation in southern Germany has turned out to be a doll. Police in Baden-Wuerttemberg state say a passer-by spotted what appeared to be a clothed but headless corpse covered in blood lying by a stream in Remstal, near Stuttgart, late Monday, the AP reports. Officers cordoned off the suspected crime scene and firefighters were called to retrieve the body, which was lying in an inaccessible place. In a statement Tuesday, police said that only once firefighters reached the site were they able to determine that it was, in fact, a doll.

Film Icon Kidnapped by North Korea Dies

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Choi Eun-hee led a fascinating life—even before the actress was kidnapped by North Korean agents and forced to make films for the state. A film icon, Choi died Monday at a South Korean hospital, where she was receiving dialysis, her son tells Yonhap News. She was 91. Beginning her film career in 1947’s A New Oath, Choi became one of South Korea’s leading actresses in the 1950s and ‘60s and one of the country’s first female directors, reports Screen Daily. By 1976, she’d appeared in more than 130 films, and apparently caught the eye of future North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. That year, while in Hong Kong, Choi was kidnapped by agents working for Kim, who believed she could help elevate North Korea’s film industry, reports the BBC.

Months later, Choi’s ex-husband, director Shin Sang-ok, was also kidnapped when he went to Hong Kong to look for her. Reunited at a party, the pair eventually made 17 films in North Korea, including 1985’s Salt, for which Choi took home the best actress award at the Moscow Film Festival, per Screen Daily. But though she was the first Korean to receive such an honor, Choi wasn’t happy living under guard. While promoting a movie in Vienna in March 1986, Choi and Shin sought asylum at the US embassy. The pair—who would spend more than a decade in the US before returning to South Korea in 1999—would later reveal secret recordings in which Kim apologized for the kidnapping scheme, per CNN. But to this day, North Korea claims the pair sought refuge in the country, per the BBC.

Radio Pundit Openly Weeps Over Syria Airstrikes

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Pundits are calling the latest airstrike in Syria everything from “a restrained operation” to a risky move that could throw the US into “a cycle of escalation” in the Syrian conflict. Supporters of President Trump from Fox News and other conservative outlets were surprisingly negative, with Infowars’ Alex Jones hating it so much he broke down crying and said, “It makes me sick.“ From around the Web:

  • A deterrence: “The one-night burst of ordnance appears unlikely to change the overall balance of forces in Syria seven years into its bloody civil war,“ write Peter Baker and Rick Gladstone in the New York Times. “But the president hoped it would be enough to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again without being so damaging as to compel Russia and Iran to intervene.“
  • Possible retaliation: Some analysts are pointing out “the risk” of America getting “more deeply in the Syrian conflict than the administration intended,“ writes Paul Sonne at the Washington Post. He quotes retired US Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who warns that Russia or Iran—supporters of Assad’s regime—might retaliate. “Then what do we do?“ asks Dubik.
  • Limited gains: Yet Washington did let Russian air force commanders know which air space the US and its allies would use, lowering the risk of escalation, write Michael Gordon and Dion Nissenbaum at the Wall Street Journal. “The effort to avoid a clash with Russian forces appeared to succeed,“ they note. “Still, the limited nature of the military intervention is likely to yield only limited gains” in Syria.
  • Assad remains at large: Top Al Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara echoed that note in a harsher manner, calling the attack “almost pinprick strikes toward three [chemical weapons] facilities.“ He says that Assad, “the man responsible ... for the death of half a million [Syrians] remains at large” and suggests that President Trump used the strikes to defer attention from “his Stormy Daniels crisis and his issue with his lawyers.“
  • Openly weeping: Conservative media pundits aren’t taking kindly to the airstrikes, the Hill reports, with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham questioning them, Michael Savage tweeting about “sad warmongers hijacking our nation,“ and Alex Jones shedding tears. “If he had been a piece of crap from the beginning, it wouldn’t be so bad,“ says Jones of the president. “We’ve made so many sacrifices and now he’s crapping all over us. It makes me sick.“

A Terrible Loss, Then Something ‘Sweet’

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A Chinese couple have had their parenthood dream realized, though nearly five years after their deaths. A baby boy was born to a surrogate in December from a fertilized embryo frozen by the couple. It was to have been implanted in the womb of Liu Xi, but she and her husband of two years, Shen Jie, died in a 2013 car crash just five days before the scheduled procedure, reports the Guardian. As Liu and Shen had no siblings, per the New York Times, their deaths might’ve meant the end of their family lines—if their parents hadn’t intervened. They demanded a court grant them authority over the couple’s embryos, stored at a hospital in Nanjing. After a complicated three-year legal battle—it involved suing each other, per the Times—they won.

Since surrogacy is illegal in China, an embryo was then implanted into the womb of a 27-year-old surrogate from Laos. To ensure Chinese citizenship, the child was born in a hospital in Guangzhou, with the four grandparents taking DNA tests to confirm the identities of his deceased parents, reports the BBC. Liu’s mother named him Tiantian, meaning “sweet.“ His “eyes look like my daughter’s but overall, he looks more like his father,“ she tells the Beijing News, per the Guardian. Shen’s father adds the grandparents will only tell Tiantian what happened to his parents when he’s older and ready to hear it. “This boy is destined to be sad on his arrival into the world,“ he says. “Other babies have their fathers and mothers.“

Zoo Drops 500 Lizards in Liquid Nitrogen

A Swedish zoo that couldn’t properly house over 500 reptiles made the hard choice of having them dropped into liquid nitrogen, The Local in Sweden reports. The Tropicarium Rescue Centre at Kolmården Zoo near Norrköping took in the reptiles after Swedish police rescued 760 lizards and other creatures from animal smugglers last month. But housing them was pricey, and other institutions only took 50 of over 550 helmethead geckos off their hands, so the decision was made. “We applied for an exemption so we could use a killing method that is not yet approved in Sweden but is used internationally,“ says a police officer. “That is to kill them in liquid nitrogen.“ In other European lizard news, a judge ruled last year that children are no longer allowed to swim with crocodiles and alligators at the Crocodile Zoo in Friedberg, The Local in Germany reported.

The Sheep-Filled Ship Left Australia, With Horrible Results

It’s not every day that a livestock-abuse video is set at sea, but such is the situation in Australia. The New York Times reports the country’s 60 Minutes on Sunday broadcast footage shot by a whistleblower in August 2017 on a ship laden with sheep that was sailing from Western Australia to Doha, Qatar. The voyage is common: Roughly 1.4 million sheep are sent around the globe via boat from Western Australia annually. But in this case, more than 2,400 of the 65,000 animals aboard didn’t make it, having succumbed to heat stress. The Times’ report describes “rotting corpses” being thrown into the sea and “images of sheep dying in their own feces.“ The Guardian reports Australia’s Department of Agriculture investigated at the time and noted the temperatures in the Persian Gulf had hit about 96 degrees with 95% humidity overnight—perilous conditions for animals.

The department found that Emanuel Exports switched to heavier staffing to help with water distribution and opened “excessively boggy pens and those in hotter areas,“ but the steps taken were “insufficient.“ It was the publication of the footage months later that spurred outrage. The government has vowed to investigate, and the ship the animals sailed on was on Sunday barred from leaving with another 65,000 sheep due to airflow concerns, reports Australia’s ABC. Critics, including one lawmaker who referred to the vessels as “death ships,“ want real change—a ban on live exports during summer months, perhaps, or a shift to more onshore butchering. One farmer tells the Times that doesn’t work for him, citing a lack of slaughterhouse facilities and his own need to export. “I would go broke.“

Putin Issues Dire Warning After West’s Syria Strike

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Russian leader Vladimir Putin has warned that further airstrikes on Syria will lead to soured relations with the West or worse. Per Reuters, Putin told Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani that any such action “will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,“ the Kremlin said in a statement that called the joint strike “a violation of the UN Charter.“ The two leaders agreed that the strikes are “adversely impacting prospects for political settlement in Syria,“ where a bloody conflict has raged for the last seven years. The US, France, and Britain on Saturday launched 105 missiles targeting purported chemical weapons facilities in Syria following a suspected gas attack in Douma on April 07.

The Western forces blame Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is allied with Russia, for the attack. Per the AP, Rouhani said “western countries do not want Syria to reach permanent stability.“ Both Assad and Russia have denied having been behind any chemical attack. Assad, meanwhile, was reportedly in high spirits following the airstrike. Per a Russian news report cited by the Washington Post, the president was in a “good mood” on Sunday during a meeting with Russian lawmakers in the capital of Damascus. “President Assad was in absolutely positive spirits,“ read the report. For his part, President Trump called the operation a complete success while tweeting “Mission Accomplished!“

41% of Americans Have to Ask, ‘What’s Auschwitz?‘

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Thursday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a new survey suggests the day is sorely needed. The results show that many Americans, particularly young adults, lack a basic understanding of the Nazi genocide during World War II. Though 96% of respondents said the Holocaust took place, 31% believe a maximum of 2 million Jews were killed, well under the actual figure of about 6 million, reports the New York Times. The percentage increased to 41% among millennials, defined as those aged 18 to 34. Some 41% of Americans and 66% of millennials had no idea about Auschwitz, the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where an estimated 1.1 million were killed, per WFTS.

The executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which seeks restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs and commissioned the February survey of 1,350 respondents, says the gaps in understanding are “troubling” given that some 400,000 Holocaust survivors are still living. “Imagine when there are no longer survivors here to tell their stories,“ he says, stressing the importance of Holocaust education. He’s backed by survey respondents, 93% of whom said it was important to teach about the Holocaust in schools. While experts say there’s nothing quite like hearing about the genocide directly from a survivor, museums are preparing for a time when no survivors remain, using holograms and recorded testimony to keep their stories alive, notes the Times.

Russia says alleged chemical attack in Syria staged by UK

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The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack in a Syrian town outside Damascus, a bold charge vehemently denied by Britain as a “blatant lie.” The exchange follows the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, and comes amid Moscow’s stern warnings to the West against striking Syria.

A day before a team from the international chemical weapons watchdog was to arrive in Douma, just east of Damascus, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that images of victims of the purported attack were staged with “Britain’s direct involvement, ” without providing evidence.

Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, dismissed Konashenkov’s claim as “a blatant lie.” Pierce said she wanted “to state categorically ... that Britain has no involvement and would never have any involvement in the use of a chemical weapon.”

White Helmets first-responders and Syrian activists have claimed the suspected chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian government on April 7 and killed more than 40 people in Douma, allegations that drew international outrage and prompted Washington and its allies to consider a military response. Moscow warned against any strikes and threatened to retaliate.

Konashenkov released statements he said came from medics at Douma’s hospital, saying a group of people toting video cameras entered the hospital, shouting that its patients were struck with chemical weapons, dousing them with water and causing panic. The statement said none of the patients had any symptoms of chemical poisoning.

Konashenkov said that “powerful pressure from London was exerted on representatives of the so-called White Helmets to quickly stage the premeditated provocation.” He added that the Russian military has proof of British involvement, but didn’t immediately present it.

“This is grotesque,” Pierce said of the Russian statement as she left an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by Russia on U.S. threatened military action in response to the alleged attack. “It’s some of the worst piece of fake news we’ve yet seen from the Russia propaganda machine.”

Konashenkov’s claim followed an earlier statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that “intelligence agencies of a state that is now striving to spearhead a Russo-phobic campaign were involved in that fabrication.” He didn’t elaborate or name the state.

Last month, Britain blamed Russia for a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy and his daughter, accusations Russia has vehemently denied.

As fears of a Russia confrontation with Western powers mount, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “deep concerns” over the situation in Syria in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to a statement by the French presidency, Macron called for dialogue between France and Russia to “continue and intensify” to bring peace and stability to Syria. The Kremlin readout said that Putin warned against rushing to blame the Syrian government before conducting a “thorough and objective probe.”

The Russian leader warned against “ill-considered and dangerous actions ... that would have consequences beyond conjecture.” Putin and Macron instructed their foreign and defense ministers to maintain close contact to “de-escalate the situation,” the Kremlin said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council Friday that “there is no military solution to the conflict.” He said “the Cold War is back — with a vengeance but with a difference,” because safeguards that managed the risk of escalation in the past, “no longer seem to be present.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said President Donald Trump “has not yet made a decision about possible actions in Syria.” She said of the alleged chemical attack that “Russia can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies and its cover-ups.”

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia insisted that there was “no credible confirmation of toxic substance use in Douma,” adding that “we have information to believe that what took place is a provocation with the participation of certain countries’ intelligence services.”

“We warned about this long ago,” he said.

Russian officials had said before the suspected gas attack in Douma that rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus were plotting chemical attacks to blame the Syrian government and set the stage for a U.S. strike. Moscow alleged soon after the suspected April 7 attack that the images of the victims in Douma were fakes.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that following Syrian rebels’ withdrawal from eastern Ghouta, stockpiles of chemical agents were found there. The ministry additionally pointed to previous alleged use of chemicals by the rebels in fighting with Syrian government troops.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Lavrov reiterated a strong warning to the West against military action in Syria. “I hope no one would dare to launch such an adventure now,” Lavrov said.

He noted that the Russian and U.S. militaries have a hotline to prevent incidents, adding that it’s not clear if it would be sufficient amid mounting tensions.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and has helped turn the tide of war in his favor since entering the conflict in September 2015. Syria’s civil war, which began as a popular uprising against Assad, is now in its eighth year.

A fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is expected to arrive in Douma on Saturday. Both the Russian military and the Syrian government said they would facilitate the mission and ensure the inspectors’ security.

The Russian military said its chemical experts visited Douma shortly after the alleged attack and found no trace of chemical agents in ground samples. It also said Russian officers found no patients with chemical attack symptoms at a local hospital, and no indication of any burials of victims.

On Thursday, Russia’s military said Douma has been brought under full control of the Syrian government under a Russia-mediated deal that secured the evacuation of the rebels and thousands of civilians after it was recaptured by Syrian forces. The government, however, said evacuations from Douma were ongoing and no Syrian government forces had entered the town.

Douma and the sprawling eastern Ghouta region near the capital, Damascus, had been under rebel control since 2012 and was a thorn in the side of Assad’s government, threatening his seat of power with missiles and potential advances for years. The government’s capture of Douma, the last town held by the rebels in eastern Ghouta, marked a major victory for Assad.

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