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►  Spain’s PM demands clarity from Catalonia on independence

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy demanded on Wednesday that the Catalan leader clarify whether he has declared independence, issuing a veiled threat that the central government could limit or rescind the region’s autonomy if he has.

Rajoy said the Catalan government’s response would be crucial in deciding “events over the coming days.”

It is the first time that Rajoy has openly said that Article 155 of the Spanish constitution will be the next step taken by the government if Catalan authorities don’t backtrack. He said the government “wants to offer certainty to citizens” and that it is “necessary to return tranquility and calm.”

Rajoy issued the demand following a special Cabinet meeting to respond to an announcement from the president of the wealthy Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, that he was proceeding with a declaration of independence but was suspending it for several weeks to facilitate negotiations.

Opposition Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez said that Spain’s two main political parties agreed to renegotiate laws governing autonomy. He said a deal was reached with Rajoy to open talks in six months on reforming the constitution that would allow changes to the current setup governing Spain’s 17 regions, including Catalonia.

Sanchez said his party wanted the reform to “allow for Catalonia to remain a part of Spain,” and that the socialists were backing Rajoy’s call for clarification from Puigdemont.

In a highly anticipated speech Tuesday night, Puigdemont said the landslide victory in a disputed October 1 referendum gave his government in the regional capital, Barcelona, the grounds to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain.

But he proposed that the regional parliament suspend the effects of the declaration to commence a dialogue and help reduce tension, in what is Spain’s worst political crisis in decades. The central government in Madrid has given little indication it is willing to talk, saying it didn’t accept the declaration and didn’t consider the referendum or its results to be valid.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said late Tuesday that the Catalan leader “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go.”

She said Puigdemont had put Catalonia “in the greatest level of uncertainty seen yet.”

Article 155 of the Constitution allows the central government to take some or total control of any of its 17 regions if they don’t comply with their legal obligations. This would begin with a Cabinet meeting and a warning to the regional government to fall into line. Then, the Senate could be called to approve the measure.

About 2.3 million Catalans — or 43 percent of the electorate in the northeastern region — voted in the referendum. Regional authorities say 90 percent were in favor and declared the results valid. Those who opposed the referendum had said they would boycott the vote.

Rajoy’s government had repeatedly refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, since it would only poll a portion of Spain’s 46 million residents.

Catalonia’s separatist camp has grown in recent years, strengthened by Spain’s recent economic crisis and by Madrid’s rejection of attempts to increase self-rule in the region.

The political deadlock has plunged Spain into its deepest political crisis in more than four decades, since democratic rule was restored following the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.


►  S. Korean lawmaker says North Korea hacked war plans

A South Korean lawmaker says North Korean hackers stole highly classified military documents that include U.S.-South Korean wartime “decapitation strike” plans against the North Korean leadership.

The United States, meanwhile, staged another show of force meant to deter any North Korean aggression by flying two B-1B supersonic bombers Tuesday night from an air base in the U.S. territory of Guam to the South for drills with South Korean fighter jets. Such flights by the powerful aircraft based in Guam incense the North, which claims they are preparation for war; Pyongyang has threatened to send missiles into the waters around Guam.

If confirmed, the reported hacking attack by the North would be a major blow for South Korea at a time when its relations with rival North Korea are at a low point. The South has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward the North’s belligerence amid back-and-forth threats of war between North Korea and U.S. Donald Trump. North Korea’s possession of secret war plans would require a major overhaul of how South Korea and its ally Washington would respond if there’s another war on the Korean Peninsula.

An unusually aggressive approach to the North by Trump, which has included rhetoric hinting at U.S. strikes and threatening the destruction of North Korea’s leadership, has some South Koreans fearful that war is closer than at any time since the Korean War ended in 1953 in a shaky cease-fire, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war.

Representative Lee Cheol-hee, a lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Party who sits on the National Defense Committee, said defense sources told him that North Korean hackers last year stole the classified U.S.-South Korean war plans, including parts of Operational Plan 5015, which includes procedures for a decapitation strike on the North’s leadership if a crisis breaks out or appears imminent.

The Defense Ministry after an investigation said in May that North Korea was likely behind the hacking of the Defense Integrated Data Center in September last year, but had refused to confirm media speculation that the decapitation strike plan was compromised. Defense officials refused to comment Wednesday.

The bilateral training mission between the U.S. B-1B bombers and South Korean F-15K fighter jets on Tuesday night followed a September 23 mission in which U.S. bombers and fighter escorts used pre-dawn hours to fly to the farthest point of the border between North and South Korea by any U.S. aircraft this century.

South Korean analysts say the nighttime flights, and also the decisions by Washington and Seoul to release the itinerary of the warplanes, are aimed at sending a clear warning to North Korea and demonstrating capability for surprise attacks.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers after the September 23 mission that North Korea failed to detect the B-1B bombers as they flew in international airspace east of the country. Pyongyang belatedly responded by relocating some of its military aircraft to its east coast, the National Intelligence Service then said. Some military experts believe that power supply problems make it difficult for North Korea to turn on its air defense radars for 24 hours a day and also that the systems might struggle to effectively track advanced warplanes such as B-1Bs, which have low radar-cross sections.

During Tuesday’s drills, the U.S. bombers, which flew from the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, staged simulated air-to-ground missile striking drills off the peninsula’s east coast before flying across the country accompanied by the two South Korean fighters. The aircraft then conducted similar simulated air to ground striking drills off the peninsula’s west coast, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

The drills were conducted not long after Lee broke the news about the alleged cyberattacks to reporters. Lee, who didn’t specify his sources, said the plans allegedly stolen by the North include operations for tracking the movement of the North’s leadership, isolating their hideouts, executing air assaults and follow-up actions for securing and eliminating targets, which would obviously include North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“There is an urgent need for the military to change and update parts that were stolen by North Korea,” Lee said.

A pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang’s leadership would be difficult to undertake, but it’s widely seen as the most realistic of the limited military options Seoul has to deny a nuclear attack from its rival.

Outside governments and international human rights organizations say Kim rules as a tyrant over a largely malnourished and abused population while enjoying a luxurious lifestyle backed up by a weapons program nearly advanced enough to viably target the U.S. mainland with nuclear-tipped missiles. But Kim, the third generation of his family to rule, is officially revered in the North, and any suggestion of removing him from power is taken extremely seriously in Pyongyang.

Lee said that 235 gigabytes of military documents were taken, but the military has yet to identify 80 percent of the documents that were compromised. Other stolen data included contingency plans for South Korean special forces and information on military facilities and power plants, he said.

Seoul says North Korea has repeatedly staged cyberattacks on South Korean business and government websites. North Korea routinely denies responsibility.

North Korea has yet to comment on either the bombing drills or the hacking claims.


►  Russia scores temporary win against U.S. on cybercrime suspect

Russia on Wednesday won the latest round in a judicial tug-of-war with the U.S. over who should try a Russian cybercrime suspect arrested during a holiday in Greece.

Last week, a panel of judges in the city of Thessaloniki agreed to send Alexander Vinnik to the U.S. to face charges he laundered $4 billion worth of bitcoins through BTC-e, one of the world’s largest digital currency exchanges, which he allegedly operated.

On Wednesday, a different panel of judges accepted a Russian extradition request, which followed the initial U.S. one. In Russia, Vinnik is accused of a 667,000-ruble ($11,500) fraud.

The final decision will rest with Greece’s justice minister once Vinnik, 37, has exhausted the process of appealing his extradition to the U.S.

Vinnik denies both sets of charges, but said he wants to be tried in Russia. He has appealed his U.S. extradition, and Greece’s Supreme Court is expected to rule on that appeal in coming weeks.

The U.S. Justice Department says that Vinnik has been indicted by a grand jury in the Northern District of California, on charges including money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and engaging in unlawful monetary transactions.

The charges, if proved in court, carry maximum sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

Following a U.S. request, Vinnik was arrested in July while on holiday with his family in the Halkidiki area of northern Greece, which is popular with Russian tourists.

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