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►  Xi calls for calm after Trump says U.S. is ‘locked and loaded’

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a plea for cool-headedness over escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea in a phone conversation with U.S. Donald Trump on Saturday, urging both sides to avoid words or actions that could worsen the situation.

The call came after Trump unleashed a slew of fresh threats against North Korea on Friday, declaring the U.S. military “locked and loaded” and warning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he “will regret it fast” if he takes any action against U.S. territories or allies.

Trump has pushed China to pressure North Korea to halt a nuclear weapons program that is nearing the capability of targeting the United States. China is the North’s biggest economic partner and source of aid, but says it alone can’t compel Pyongyang to end its nuclear and missile programs.

The White House said in a statement that Trump and Xi “agreed North Korea must stop its provocative and escalatory behavior.” It also said that the two “reiterated their mutual commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

State-run China Central Television quoted Xi as telling Trump the “relevant parties must maintain restraint and avoid words and deeds that would exacerbate the tension on the Korean Peninsula.”

But restraint was not the word of the day on Friday as Trump sent out a cascade of unscripted statements, including what appeared to be another red line — the mere utterance of threats — that would trigger a U.S. attack against North Korea and “big, big trouble” for Kim.

North Korea’s Minju Joson newspaper, meanwhile, lashed back at the U.S. in an editorial Saturday.

“The powerful revolutionary Paektusan army of the DPRK, capable of fighting any war the U.S. wants, is now on the standby to launch fire into its mainland, waiting for an order of final attack,” it said. DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The tough talk capped a week in which long-standing tensions between the countries risked abruptly boiling over.

New United Nations sanctions condemning the North’s rapidly developing nuclear program drew fresh ire and threats from Pyongyang. Trump, responding to a report that U.S. intelligence indicates Pyongyang can now put a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles, vowed to rain down “fire and fury” if challenged.

The North then came out with a threat to lob four intermediate-range “Hwasong-12” missiles near Guam, a tiny U.S. territory some 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Pyongyang.

At the epicenter of the rhetoric, Trump’s New Jersey golf course, the president seemed to put Kim on notice, saying, “If he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat — which by the way he has been uttering for years and his family has been uttering for years — or he does anything with respect to Guam or anyplace else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.”

Asked if the U.S. was going to war, he said cryptically, “I think you know the answer to that.”

But Trump’s comments did not appear to be backed by significant military mobilization on either side of the Pacific, and an important, quiet diplomatic channel remained open. As a precaution, Japan deployed missile defense batteries under the path a North Korean missile might take.

Life on the streets of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, also remained calm.

There have been no air raid drills or cars in camouflage netting as has been the case during previous crises. State-run media ensures that the population gets the North Korean side of the story, but doesn’t convey any sense of international concern about the situation.

U.S. officials say they will be going ahead with long-scheduled military exercises with South Korea. Pyongyang says it will be ready to send its missile launch plan to Kim for approval just before or as the drills begin.

Called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, the exercises are expected to run August 21-31 and involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops on the ground and in the sea and air. North Korea claims the exercises are a rehearsal for war, but Washington and Seoul say they are necessary to deter North Korean aggression.

Trump began his Friday barrage with an especially fiery tweet: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”

He later retweeted a posting from U.S. Pacific Command that showed B-1B Lancer bomber planes on Guam that “stand ready to fulfill USFK’s #FightTonight mission if called upon to do so.” ″Fight tonight” has long been the motto of U.S. forces in South Korea to show they’re always ready for combat on the Korean Peninsula.

Trump also brushed away calls for caution from other world leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel.

“I don’t see a military solution and I don’t think it’s called for,” Merkel said Friday, calling on the U.N. Security Council to continue to address the crisis.

“I think escalating the rhetoric is the wrong answer,” Merkel added.

“Let her speak for Germany,” Trump said, when asked about the comment. “Perhaps she is referring to Germany. She’s certainly not referring to the United States, that I can tell you.”

By evening, he seemed to have mellowed a bit.

“Hopefully it’ll all work out,” Trump said. “Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than Trump.”

Speaking to Guam Governor Eddie Calvo, he promised: “You are safe. We are with you a thousand percent.”


►  Death toll rises amid Kenya’s rioting over disputed vote

In an escalation of Kenya’s deadly election violence, police on Saturday fired live ammunition at rioters and used tear gas on vehicles carrying opposition officials trying to enter a Nairobi slum where they have strong support. A young girl was killed by a stray bullet, nine bodies with gunshot wounds were brought overnight to the capital’s main morgue, and a watchdog group said police gunfire has killed 24 people since Tuesday’s disputed vote.

The chaos in the Nairobi slums of Mathare and Kibera, as well as in the opposition stronghold of Kisumu city, contrasted with widespread calm — and celebrations in some areas — in the country of 45 million after Kenya’s election commission said late Friday that President Uhuru Kenyatta won a second term. Protests, often violent, began soon after voting when Kenyatta’s main challenger, Raila Odinga, alleged vote-rigging.

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The government said life was returning to normal and that those challenging security forces were criminals intent on looting and destroying property. However, the police came under scrutiny for what the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, which monitors government institutions, described as the “unlawful and unacceptable” use of excessive force.

Seventeen of the two dozen people shot by police died in Nairobi, the commission said. It cited allegations of police breaking into homes, beating people, threatening them with rape and demanding money. The watchdog group also lamented “the destruction of private property by both civilians and allegedly by security personnel in the course of their duty.”

Police shot and killed two people during riots by opposition supporters on the outskirts of Kisumu, a regional police commander, Leonard Katana, said Saturday. Another five people were injured by gunfire in Kisumu, Katana said.

In Mathare, where Odinga has significant support, police opened fire to disperse protesters who blocked roads and set up burning barricades. Associated Press photographers saw police charging demonstrators and firing live rounds and tear gas.

One Mathare resident, Wycliff Mokaya, told The Associated Press that his 9-year-old daughter was killed by a stray bullet while on the third-floor balcony of their home.

“I was watching her play with her friends when she suddenly fell down,” Mokaya said. “She was my only hope.”

Nine bodies with gunshot wounds were brought to the Nairobi morgue from Mathare, a mortuary official said Saturday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

An Associated Press photographer said police used tear gas on a large opposition convoy trying to enter the Kibera slum. Police also fired shots in the air.

The Kenya Red Cross said it helped a total of 93 people who were injured during the clashes since the election results were announced.

Police harassed and assaulted at least four journalists covering the violence, witnesses said.

The unrest followed a victory speech Friday in which Kenyatta, whose father was Kenya’s first president after independence from British colonial rule, said he was extending a “hand of friendship” to the opposition.

Kenyatta won with a decisive 54 percent of the vote to nearly 45 percent for Odinga, but the bitter dispute over the integrity of the election process tempered what many Kenyans had hoped would be a celebration of democracy in a regional power known for its economic promise and long-term stability. The opposition said the election commission’s database had been hacked and results were manipulated against Odinga.

The unrest also exposed divisions in a society where poverty and government corruption have angered large numbers of Kenyans, including those who have been protesting in the slums and see Odinga as a voice for their grievances.

Adding to the rift is ethnic loyalty. Kenyatta is widely seen as the representative of the Kikuyu people, the country’s largest ethnic group, while Odinga is associated with the Luo group, which has never produced a head of state.

But reconciliation efforts and the introduction of a progressive constitution in 2010 have helped to defuse fears of the kind of ethnic-fueled violence that followed the 2007 election in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Odinga ran unsuccessfully in that election; he also lost the 2013 vote to Kenyatta and took allegations of vote-tampering to Kenya’s highest court, which rejected his case.

Recalling its failed legal challenge in 2013, the opposition has said it will not go to court again. It has not directly urged supporters to stage protests, instead telling them to stay safe.


►  Venezuela rejects Trump talk of ‘military option’

Venezuela’s government energetically rejected U.S. Donald Trump’s talk of a potential “military option” to resolve the country’s political crisis on Saturday, calling it the most egregious act of belligerence against Venezuela in a century and a threat to stability in the region.

The stinging rebuke came in a statement read by Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza in a meeting with foreign diplomats, including Lee McClenny, the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.

Calling Trump the “boss of the empire,” Arreaza said Trump’s latest comments fit a pattern of aggression against Venezuelan sovereignty and constitute a violation of international law and the U.N. charter.

He said they were particularly menacing given President Nicolas Maduro’s renewed call this week for closer ties and request for a meeting with Trump at the U.N. General Assembly next month.

The White House responded to that request by saying Trump would “gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country.”

Speaking to reporters Friday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump bemoaned the South American nation’s growing humanitarian crisis and declared that all options remain on the table — including a potential military intervention.

“We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option,” Trump volunteered, adding that “a military operation and military option is certainly something that we could pursue.”

The comment marked a serious escalation in rhetoric for the United States and threatened to undermine Washington’s efforts to rally regional support to isolate Maduro.

Mike Pence kicks off a four-nation tour of Latin America on Sunday with a stop in Colombia, whose government — the staunchest U.S. ally in South America — was quick to distance itself from Trump’s remarks even while reiterating its concerns about a breakdown of democracy in Venezuela.

In a statement, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry condemned “military measures and the use of force” and said all efforts to resolve Venezuela’s crisis should be peaceful and respect its sovereignty.

The Trump administration has slapped a series of sanctions against Maduro and more than two-dozen current and former officials in response to a crackdown on opposition leaders and the recent election of a pro-government assembly tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution.

Meeting Saturday, delegates to the constitutional assembly exultantly denounced Trump and shouted anti-American slogans. Loyalists warned of another Vietnam if Trump were to dare send Marines to Venezuela, as the United States last did in the late 19th century during an earlier period of political unrest.

“If the impossible scenario of tarnishing our fatherland were ever to occur, our guns would arrive to New York, Mr. Trump, and we would take the White House,” said Nicolas Maduro, the president’s son, to loud applause. “Solve your own problems, Donald Trump. You have enough.”

Almost from day one since taking office in 2013, the elder Maduro has been warning of U.S. military designs on Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves. But most Venezuelans tended to shrug the accusations off as the diversionary tactics of an unpopular leader.

Now those claims are likely to be validated in the eyes of many government supporters.

The threat of military intervention would also seem to contradict the advice of Trump’s top national security adviser. Citing the resentment stirred in Latin America by the long U.S. history of military interventions in the region, General H.R. McMaster said recently that he didn’t want to give Maduro any ammunition to blame the “Yankees” for the “tragedy” that has befallen the oil-rich nation.

“You’ve seen Maduro have some lame attempts to try to do that already,” McMaster said in an interview that aired last Saturday on MSNBC.


►  Tillerson says diplomats in Havana suffered ‘health attacks’

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that U.S. diplomats in Havana had been the victims of “health attacks” that left them with hearing loss — the most definitive U.S. statement yet on a series of mysterious incidents that have puzzled longtime observers of U.S.-Cuban relations.

His comments Friday came two days after the State Department issued a vaguely worded statement saying there had been “incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms.” U.S. officials later revealed that American diplomats had suffered unexplained losses of hearing, and on Thursday Canada’s government said at least one Canadian diplomat in Cuba also had been treated for hearing loss.

“We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved,” Tillerson said in Bedminster, New Jersey, where Donald Trump and members of his administration spoke to reporters.

In the fall of 2016, a series of U.S. diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, according to officials with knowledge of the case. Some of the diplomats’ symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, the officials said.

The officials told The Associated Press that the hearing loss appeared to have been caused by the deliberate use of some sort of sonic device operating outside the range of audible sound.

Former diplomats and students of U.S.-Cuba relations said they found it inexplicable that Cuba would have tried to harm U.S. and Canadian diplomats, particularly in the fall of 2016 as President Barack Obama was ending a second term marked partly by the reopening of diplomatic relations with the island.

U.S. officials familiar with the incidents said they began to be reported last October, when most domestic and foreign observers expected Hillary Clinton to win the presidency and continue Obama’s policy of normalization with Cuba.

Attacking Canadian diplomats would be an inexplicable assault on one of Cuba’s most important trading partners and the largest source of tourists to the island.

“There’d be no logic to the Cubans trying to deliberately harm U.S. or Canadian diplomats,” said William LeoGrande, an American University expert on Cuban foreign policy. “It’d really be unprecedented.”

The Cuban government said in a lengthy statement Wednesday that “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.”

Former U.S. and Canadian diplomats said they had been targets of low-level harassment and intimidation by Cuban agents in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, incidents that included attacks on diplomats’ pets and intimidating maneuvers like tailgating and flashing bright lights into diplomats’ cars as they drove with their families late at night.

“There were things like turning your electricity, turning off your water, entering your home, leaving little reminders that they were there. Things would be out of place,” said John Caulfield, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 2011 to 2014.

In addition to harassment, Caulfield said U.S. diplomats in Cuba are under 24-hour surveillance during their assignments.

“Nobody does anything in Cuba without them knowing,” Caulfield said.

A U.S. official said some American diplomats in Cuba had come home to find that someone had used their toilet and not flushed it, in what was interpreted as a deliberate attempt to disgust and unnerve. The official served at the then-interests section in Cuba in the 2000s and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity due to the possibility of a return to Havana.

The State Department’s Inspector General wrote in a 2007 report that “life in Havana is life with a government that ‘lets you know it’s hostile.’ Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets.”

“All employees are fully aware that host government hostility extends to an elaborate, aggressive intelligence apparatus,” the report said.

Caulfield said aggressive tactics largely stopped by late 2013 and 2014 as U.S. and Cuban officials secretly negotiated the diplomatic reopening announced in December 2014, after his departure from Havana.

He said he believed the likeliest explanation for the diplomats’ mysterious deafness was “a new surveillance technique gone bad that had consequences. I do not believe they would randomly cause harm to this variety of people.”

A former Canadian ambassador to Cuba, James Bartleman, said that during his 1981-83 tour in Havana, he and his staff were targets of a string of mysterious attacks.

“One morning in 1982 the butler came to say that our dog had been poisoned and was very sick and dying,” Bartleman said. “My deputy ambassador called to say someone had poisoned his dog and his dog was dead. Then the head of the commercial section called to say that, ‘Out of the blue we opened the door and a rat was nailed to it.’”

Bartleman said he complained to the then-head of the Americas section of Cuba’s foreign ministry, who he quoted as saying: “Someone is trying to harm Canada-Cuba relations.”

He said the Cuban government sent a veterinarian to his house, but he sent his dog back to Canada, where it died six months later.

“We were their bosom buddies back then,” Bartleman said of Canadian-Cuban relations. “We were their largest trading partner and always their largest provider of tourists. Why would they do it? It made no sense then and makes no sense now.”


►  U.S. fighter jet crash lands at Bahrain International Airport

A U.S. F-18 fighter jet suffering an engine problem crash landed Saturday at Bahrain International Airport and its pilot ejected from the aircraft after it ran off the runway, authorities said. The pilot escaped unharmed.

The crash disrupted flights to and from the island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia that’s home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Images on social media showed the grey fighter jet’s nose tipped into the air but largely intact after what the Navy described as an “uncontrollable” landing.

The F-18 took off from the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier now in the Persian Gulf, said Cmdr. Bill Urban, a fleet spokesman. While in flight, the plane suffered an engine malfunction, forcing the pilot to divert, Urban said.

The pilot initially tried to land at Sheikh Isa Air Base in Bahrain, but instead ended up at the island’s commercial airport, Urban said.

“Due to the malfunction, the aircraft could not be stopped on the runway and the pilot ejected from the aircraft as it departed the runway,” the commander said in a statement.

Naval officials began an investigation into the crash and were trying to help the airport resume operations, Urban said. Bahrain’s Transportation and Telecommunications Ministry called the crash landing a “minor incident” in a statement and said flights resumed at the airport several hours later.

Bahrain hosts 8,000 U.S. troops, mostly sailors attached to a sprawling base called the Naval Support Activity. Officials at that facility oversee some 20 U.S. and coalition naval vessels in the Gulf providing security and others running anti-piracy patrols.

Bahrain is also home to an under-construction British naval base.

--> Sunday, August 13, 2017
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