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Monthly Archives: January 2016

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Obama forced again to rethink troop numbers in Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fifteen years into the war that few Americans talk about any more, conditions in Afghanistan are getting worse, preventing the clean ending that President Barack Obama hoped to impose before leaving office. Violence is on the rise, the Taliban are staging new offensives, the Islamic State group is angling for a foothold and peace prospects are dim.

Afghanistan remains a danger zone. It’s hobbled by a weak economy that’s sapping public confidence in the new government. Afghan police and soldiers are struggling to hold together the country 13 months after the U.S.-led military coalition culled its numbers by 90 percent.

The bottom line: For a second time, Obama is rethinking his plan to drop U.S. troop levels from 9,800 to 5,500 before he leaves office in January 2017.

“I don’t see any drawdowns” in the near future, said James Dobbins, Obama’s former special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He predicted Obama would leave the decision to the next president.

“They are just hoping that things hold together and they won’t have to face a decision on whether to actually implement the force reduction they’re talking about until late summer, early fall, by which time the administration will be on its last legs,” Dobbins said.

Top military officials, as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress, think that trimming the force any more during Obama’s presidency is a bad idea. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that Afghanistan was in a “crisis situation.”

“As the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, it makes no strategic or military sense to continue the withdrawal of American forces,” said McCain, who frequently criticizes Obama’s national security policy.

It’s been a tough year on the Afghan battlefield.

Afghan soldiers and policemen — bankrolled by $4.1 billion in U.S. taxpayer money — fought virtually on their own last year for the first time since the U.S. invasion in 2001. NATO officials have told The Associated Press that Afghan troops are displaying prowess, but suffering sustained heavy casualties — 28 percent higher in 2015 than before the international combat mission ended in December 2014.

Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, Obama’s pick to be the next top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that the Afghan security forces have “more than held their own against the insurgency,” but are not yet “self-sustainable.”

Asked whether the U.S. effort in 2015 had resulted in gains or losses, Nicholson replied: “The Taliban came at the Afghan security forces more intensely than perhaps we anticipated. Because of that, we did not make the advances we … thought we would make.”

When U.S. and other foreign troops left on an announced schedule, the Taliban pounced.

Last fall, the militants briefly seized Kunduz, a city of 300,000 in northern Afghanistan. It marked the Taliban’s first capture of a major city since before the U.S.-led invasion and was marred by the mistaken U.S. strike on a charity hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 people.

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, acknowledged that Kunduz was a setback. But he said it also reminded Afghans what life was like under the Taliban.

“They don’t want to return to that,” he said.

In the south, Afghan army units have been engaged in fierce fights with the Taliban for months in Helmand province, where militants sow more than $3 billion a year in opium revenue.

The Afghan army in Helmand has been plagued by incompetence and ineffectiveness, partly due to corruption among top officers who are suspected of siphoning off money from salaries, food, fuel and equipment. In recent weeks, the Afghan military has fired and replaced top Afghan army leaders there.

Also in the south, U.S. and Afghan forces last year killed 150 to 200 al-Qaida members in a large training camp, complete with tunnels, that was discovered in neighboring Kandahar province, another militant stronghold. Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. analyst who served as an adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, noted that at the beginning of the Obama administration, the U.S. talked of there being fewer than 100 members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. “Now we’re talking about 200 in Kandahar province alone?”

The Defense Department told Congress in a report last month that violence is rising in much of the country and the Taliban can be expected to build momentum. It also portrayed the Afghan forces as favoring a defensive crouch that limits their ability to go after the Taliban in some areas.

In a different report to Congress this week, the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction said the Taliban now control more territory than at any time since 2001.

A current Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, acknowledged the army’s many setbacks this year, but said the Taliban had sought to achieve major victories after the U.S.-led coalition announced it would end its combat mission on Dec. 31, 2015. Instead, they failed to retake huge swaths of land, he said.

He also noted that Afghan plans to shift its military from a conventional force to one that’s more mobile and nimble to respond to the guerrilla-type warfare conducted by the Taliban. He said 2016 “is going to see some changes.”

Obama already backtracked once on drawing down the American force.

Initially, he had announced plans to reduce the force to 5,500 troops by the end of last year, and to 1,000 by the end of 2016. Last fall, Obama changed his mind, saying the situation remained too fragile for the American military to leave. He announced plans to keep the current force of about 9,800 in place through most of 2016 to perform not in an offensive combat role but to continue counterterrorism missions and advise Afghans battling a resurgent Taliban.

While the Taliban is fighting turf battles against IS in some places, the Afghan and U.S. forces worry that the brutal militant network — estimated at 1,000 to 3,000 strong in Afghanistan — could gain a foothold, cause further instability and use Afghanistan as a new base from which to plan attacks on the West.

The Obama administration recently expanded the U.S. military’s authority to offensively target IS militants in Afghanistan in addition to al-Qaida.

If security is weak, the economy might be worse.

Mohammad Qayoumi, an Afghan native who left his job as president of San Jose University in California to advise President Ashraf Ghani, said that when the bulk of the foreign forces left the country, 500,000 Afghan jobs were lost. But he said the Afghan government has many economic development projects in the works to help wean the nation off international assistance.

Qayoumi, who briefed reporters recently in Washington, rattled off a list of infrastructure and construction projects planned. “No country has gone from poverty to prosperity through grants and aid,” he said.

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FILE – In this Dec. 25, 2013 file photo, U.S. troops gather in to Wardak province, eastern Afghanistan. Conditions in Afghanistan are getting worse, 15 years into a war that few Americans talk about any more. That’s preventing the clean ending that President Barack Obama hoped to impose before leaving office. Violence is on the rise, the Taliban are staging new offensives, the Islamic State group is angling for a foothold and peace prospects are dim. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

State Department declares 22 Clinton emails ‘top secret’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration has confirmed for the first time that Hillary Clinton’s home server contained closely guarded government secrets, censoring 22 emails that contained material requiring one of the highest levels of classification. The revelation came three days before the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential candidate competes in the Iowa caucuses.

State Department officials also said the agency’s Diplomatic Security and Intelligence and Research bureaus are investigating if any of the information was classified at the time of transmission, going to the heart of Clinton’s defense of her email practices.

The department on Friday evening published its latest batch of emails from her time as America’s top diplomat.

But The Associated Press learned ahead of the release that seven email chains would be withheld in full for containing “top secret” information. The 37 pages include messages a key intelligence official recently said concerned “special access programs” —highly restricted, classified material that could point to confidential sources or clandestine programs like drone strikes.

“The documents are being upgraded at the request of the intelligence community because they contain a category of top secret information,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told the AP, calling the withholding of documents in full “not unusual.” That means they won’t be published online with others being released, even with blacked-out boxes.

Department officials wouldn’t describe the substance of the emails, or say if Clinton sent any herself.

Clinton insists she never sent or received information on her personal email account that was classified at the time. No emails released so far were marked classified, but reviewers previously designated more than 1,000 messages at lower classification levels. Friday’s will be the first at top secret level.

Even if Clinton didn’t write or forward the messages, she still would have been required to report any classification slippages she recognized in emails she received. But without classification markings, that may have been difficult, especially if the information was publicly available.

“We firmly oppose the complete blocking of the release of these emails,” Clinton campaign spokesman Brain Fallon said. “Since first providing her emails to the State Department more than one year ago, Hillary Clinton has urged that they be made available to the public. We feel no differently today.”

Fallon accused the “loudest and leakiest participants” in a process of bureaucratic infighting for withholding the exchanges. The documents, he said, originated in the State Department’s unclassified system before they ever reached Clinton, and “in at least one case, the emails appear to involve information from a published news article.”

“This appears to be overclassification run amok,” Fallon said.

Kirby said the State Department was focused, as part of a Freedom of Information Act review of Clinton’s emails, on “whether they need to be classified today.” Past classification questions, he said, “are being, and will be, handled separately by the State Department.” It is the first indication of such a probe.

Department responses for classification infractions could include counseling, warnings or other action, officials said. They wouldn’t say if Clinton or senior aides who’ve since left government could face penalties. The officials weren’t authorized to speak on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Separately, Kirby said the department withheld eight email chains, totaling 18 messages, between President Barack Obama and Clinton. These are remaining confidential “to protect the president’s ability to receive unvarnished advice and counsel,” and will be released eventually like other presidential records.

The emails have been a Clinton campaign issue since 10 months ago, when the AP discovered her exclusive use while in office of a homebrew email server in the basement of her family’s New York home. Doing so wasn’t expressly forbidden. Clinton first called the decision a matter of convenience, then a mistake.

Last March, Clinton and the State Department said no business conducted in the emails included top-secret matters. Both said her account was never hacked or compromised, which security experts assess as unlikely.

Clinton and the State Department also claimed the vast majority of her emails were preserved properly for archiving because she corresponded mainly with government accounts. They’ve backtracked from that claim in recent months.

The special access programs emails surfaced last week, when Charles I. McCullough, lead auditor for U.S. intelligence agencies, told Congress he found some in Clinton’s account.

Kirby confirmed the “denied-in-full emails” are among those McCullough recently cited. He said one was among those McCullough identified last summer as possibly containing top secret information.

The AP reported last August that one focused on a forwarded news article about the CIA’s classified U.S. drone program. Such operations are widely discussed publicly, including by top U.S. officials, and State Department officials debated McCullough’s claim. The other concerned North Korean nuclear weapons programs, according to officials.

At the time, several officials from different agencies suggested the disagreement over the drone emails reflected a tendency to overclassify material, and a lack of consistent classification policies across government.

The FBI also is looking into Clinton’s email setup, but has said nothing about the nature of its probe. Independent experts say it’s unlikely Clinton will be charged with wrongdoing, based on details that have surfaced so far and the lack of indications she intended to break laws.

“What I would hope comes out of all of this is a bit of humility” and Clinton’s acknowledgement that “I made some serious mistakes,” said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer specializing in security clearance matters.

Legal questions aside, it’s the potential political costs that probably more concern Clinton. She has struggled in surveys measuring perceived trustworthiness and any investigation, buoyed by evidence of top secret material coursing through her account, could negate a main selling point for her becoming commander in chief: her national security resume.

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FILE – In this Oct. 18, 2011, file photo, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya. The private email server running in Clinton’s home basement when she was secretary of state was connected to the Internet in ways that made it more vulnerable to hackers, according to data and documents reviewed by The Associated Press. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP, File)

33 migrants drown as boat hits rocks, sinks off Turkey coast

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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A boat smuggling migrants to Greece slammed into rocks off the Turkish coast Saturday and capsized, killing at least 33 people including five children, as the choppy Aegean Sea continued to claim asylum-seekers’ lives this month at an appalling pace, officials said.

Coast guard officials said they rescued 75 people from the 17-meter (56-foot) vessel but government officials said they suspected more were trapped inside the sunken vessel and the death toll was likely to rise. Video footage on the Turkish shoreline showed police walking among bodies of several dead as they washed ashore, among them a toddler lying on his back in navy blue clothing.

The International Organization for Migration says drowning deaths are running at four times the rate of 2015, when many thousands daily sought to enter the European Union via Turkey by reaching one of more than a dozen offshore Greek islands, particularly nearby Lesbos.

Saturday’s deaths take the drowning total for January above 250, whereas the agency recorded 805 drowning deaths on Turkey-Greece smuggling routes throughout 2015.

A Turkish government official said he expects rescue workers to find more dead who were trapped inside the wreckage of the boat, which sank shortly after departing from the Aegean resort of Ayvacik, barely 8 kilometers (5 miles) north of the Lesbos coastline.

Saim Eskioglu, deputy governor for the coastal Canakkale province that includes Ayvacik, said the boat “hit rocks soon after it left the coast and, unfortunately, it sank.”

“We believe there are more dead bodies inside the boat,” he told CNN-Turk television.

Ayvacik’s mayor, Mehmet Unal Sahin, said most of the migrants were Syrians. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the boat also bore natives of Afghanistan and Myanmar.

In a statement, the Turkish coast guard said it dispatched three boats, a team of divers and a helicopter after receiving calls for help. The coast guard said its rescue teams recovered 33 bodies and were continuing to search.

A private Turkish news agency, Dogan, said police arrested a Turkish man suspected of being the smuggler who organized Saturday’s disastrous sea crossing.

Journalists at the scene said weather conditions Saturday on the Turkish coast were relatively mild, with light winds and temperatures around 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit).

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the rate of deaths on Turkey-Greece human trafficking routes was “increasing at an alarming rate.”

Millman, speaking before Saturday’s tragedy, said the rate of fatalities was running exceptionally high versus 2015. He said 55,000 had crossed by sea into Greece this month, a “very small number” versus the monthly flow in 2015.

Turkey, which is hosting an estimated 2.5 million refugees from Syria, in November agreed to fight smuggling networks and stem the flow of migrants into Europe. In return, the European Union pledged 3 billion euros ($3.25 billion) to help improve the refugees’ conditions.

The country says it has started rejecting Syrians who arrive without valid visas via third countries. It also has started to grant work permits to Syrians as an incentive for them to stay put in Turkey.

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Refugees and migrants on a dinghy arrive from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. A migration monitoring agency says deaths of refugees and migrants crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece are “increasing at an alarming rate” as 218 people have died in January on that eastern Mediterranean route. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

US Warship Sails Near Disputed Island in South China Sea

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —    BANGKOK — A U.S. warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea on Saturday to exercise the U.S.’s freedom to navigate in international waters, a defense official said.

The USS Curtis Wilbur destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, in the Paracels chain, without notifying the three claimants to the surrounding seas beforehand, according to Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright in Washington.

China, Taiwan and Vietnam have claims in the Paracels and require prior notice from ships transiting in nearby waters. Wright said the claimants’ attempts to restrict navigational rights by requiring prior notice are inconsistent with international law.

Wright reiterated that while insisting on freedom of navigation, the United States took no position on the competing territorial claims to natural islands in the South China Sea.

In October, another U.S. warship sailed in the disputed Spratly Islands near Subi Reef, where China has built an artificial island.

U.S. officials said after that operation that such ship movements would be regular in the future.

China protested the October sail-by strongly. It had no immediate comment on Saturday’s movements.

China says virtually the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls are its sovereign territory, although five other regional governments have overlapping claims.

The area has some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and U.S. officials say ensuring freedom of navigation there is in U.S. national interests.

Syria’s Kurds leave Geneva after not being invited to talks

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —-    The latest attempt to reach a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria was meant to include participation by armed opposition groups.

But their representatives had still not fully committed to the negotiations when the government delegation arrived in Geneva on Friday for talks with the United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura.

The main opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee, had refused to participate until government sieges of rebel-held towns were lifted and bombings, which continued on Friday, were halted. Still, its representatives flew to Geneva on Friday — not to negotiate, but to talk to Mr. de Mistura and press their humanitarian case to the public.

Two years ago, in talks in Geneva that eventually fell apart, the Syrian opposition was represented by exile groups that had little or no influence over what was happening on the ground. This time, armed groups, including moderate factions and some hard-line Islamists, were to be among those doing the talking for the opposition side.

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Riad Hijab Credit Faisal Nasser/Reuters

Mr. de Mistura had said that the committee and the Syrian government would be the only parties directly involved in the so-called proximity talks that would avoid face-to-face meetings and have Mr. de Mistura shuttling between them. Representatives of some other Syrian groups were also invited to Geneva, but only as advisers, not parties to the talks. (Groups that are designated as terrorist, like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were not invited.)

Here are some of the major groups and where they stand regarding the talks.

SYRIAN HIGH NEGOTIATIONS COMMITTEE

The Saudi-backed coalition was born out of meetings held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December, and its coordinator is Riad Hijab, who was prime minister of Syria for two months before he defected to the opposition in 2012. He is from Deir al-Zour, a city in the east now controlled by the Islamic State. On Thursday, he strongly criticized Mr. de Mistura’s proposals for the talks, calling them “a Russian and Iranian plan” that would be “a disaster for the region.”

Mr. Hijab is affiliated with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which represented the opposition in the abortive Geneva II talks. The United States and some other Western and Persian Gulf countries regard it is as the main representative body of opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, but it is based in Istanbul and has little sway over events on the battlefield in Syria.

Other central figures in the negotiating committee include Mohammed Alloush of the Army of Islam, a powerful Islamist militia near Damascus, and Asaad al-Zoubi, a former army colonel who now leads the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria. The Free Syrian Army has struggled despite receiving American support, while hard-line Islamist factions have become more powerful.

THE KURDISH DEMOCRATIC UNION PARTY

The party, known as the P.Y.D., is the main Kurdish force in Syria. Its militia controls a substantial area in the northeast and along the Turkish border. Russia wanted the group to be invited to the Geneva talks, but Turkey, which is fighting a Kurdish insurgency of its own, raised strong objections. The Saudi-backed committee also objected, saying it should be the sole opposition representative. The party’s leader, Saleh Muslim, said on Tuesday that no Syrian Kurdish officials had been invited to the Geneva talks.

Turkey sees the party as an extension of the group it is fighting, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. The United States considers the P.K.K. a terrorist organization but is working with Kurdish fighters in Syria to fight the Islamic State. And Russia says it would be impossible to negotiate a meaningful peace deal without the Kurds.

“How can we talk about political reforms in Syria ignoring the leading Kurdish party, quite a mighty power that, by the way, actively opposes terrorism on the ground, including ISIS?” Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said on Tuesday. “Not inviting this group would be a most serious mistake.”

THE (POTENTIAL) ADVISERS

Mr. de Mistura appeared to be seeking a compromise by inviting some groups to be represented in Geneva not as parties to the negotiations but as advisers whom he would consult. The names that have surfaced include political figures allied with the Kurdish party and representatives from other groups that are not part of the High Negotiations Committee, including some backed by Russia or seen as close to the Assad government.

Haytham Manaa, a Syrian dissident and human rights activist who spent years in prison for opposing the Assad family’s rule, said that he was invited but that he might not attend. He spoke out for years against armed insurgency and foreign intervention; now he lives in Geneva and leads a new group called the Council of Democratic Syria, which is linked to Kurdish and Arab militias. In a telephone interview, he said Syrians should choose who is invited.

“I represent 22 parties and 70,000 fighters on the ground,” Mr. Manaa said. “I feel ashamed of sitting with some names on the same table.”

Two other figures in Mr. Manaa’s coalition are Kadri Jamil and Randa Kassis. Mr. Jamil was deputy prime minister for economic affairs in the Assad government until he was ejected in 2013; he is seen as close to Russia. Gennady Gatilov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said Mr. Jamil would “lead the moderate opposition” in Geneva. Ms. Kassis, who is French-Syrian, leads a group called the Movement of the Pluralistic Society.

Jihad Makdissi, the longtime spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry before he defected in late 2012, said he would not attend the first round of talks. “I think that my temporary absence from this initial round may contribute in alleviating the current disputes,” he wrote in a letter to Mr. de Mistura published online.

ON THE GROUND, BUT NOT IN GENEVA

The United Nations never planned to invite groups that are widely regarded as terrorist organizations, like the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.

The powerful hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham attended the talks in Riyadh in December where the High Negotiations Committee was formed, but then walked out, saying the delegation was too close to the Assad government. Russia had publicly opposed allowing the group and another, the Army of Islam, to take part in talks, a position it restated on Friday.

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Business: US stocks soar to finish tough month as tech stocks climb

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NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks soared on the last trading day of January, with Microsoft, Visa and other tech stocks making the biggest gains in a broad market rally Friday.

Indexes rose throughout the day and finished with their biggest gains in about five months. Asian stocks jumped after the Bank of Japan moved to stimulate the economy, and European markets also rose. In the U.S, tech stocks climbed following strong quarterly results from Microsoft and Visa. Materials companies and banks also made large gains, and the price of oil rose for the fourth day in a row.

The U.S. government said Friday that the economy slowed in the fourth quarter, a possibility that had worried investors. But its estimate of the country’s gross domestic product was about equal to analysts’ forecasts and didn’t hurt stocks.

The Dow Jones industrial average surged 396.66 points, or 2.5 percent, to 16,466.30. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 46.88 points, or 2.5 percent, to 1,940.24, as more than 480 of its component stocks rose. The Nasdaq composite index jumped 107.28 points, or 2.4 percent, to 4,613.95.

Stocks made some big gains in the last two weeks, but still finished January with hefty losses.

Microsoft added $3.04, or 5.8 percent, to $55.09 after its profit and revenue beat expectations. The tech giant posted strong results from its cloud computing business and the unit that sells PC software and Surface tablets and Xbox game consoles.

Visa and MasterCard both rose after reporting solid results. Visa climbed $5.16, or 7.4 percent, to $74.49 and MasterCard picked up $5.60, or 6.7 percent, to $89.03.

E-commerce company Amazon took its largest one-day slide in more than a year. Amazon’s quarterly profit more than doubled, but it still fell short of Wall Street’s forecasts because of increased costs. Some of those related to its Fulfillment by Amazon service, which handles shipping for sellers and makes them eligible for Amazon Prime shipping. The stock lost $48.35, or 7.6 percent, to $587.

Honeywell advanced $5.23, or 5.3 percent, to $103.20 following its fourth-quarter report, and General Electric added 89 cents, or 3.2 percent, to $29.10.

Xerox said it will split into two publicly traded companies after pressure from activist investor Carl Icahn. Its stock gained 52 cents, or 5.6 percent, to $9.75.

The Commerce Department said U.S. gross domestic product grew only 0.7 percent over the last three months of 2015, while analyst expected 0.8 percent. The agency said consumers spent less, businesses invested less, and exports were down because of global instability.

The U.S. economy has been expanding for six and a half years, but on Wednesday the Federal Reserve cautioned that the U.S. economy is slowing down. The Fed also expressed concerns about global growth. Stocks tumbled after the Fed released its assessment.

Crude oil prices kept rising. Benchmark U.S. oil added 40 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $33.62 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, gained 85 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $34.74. Oil prices have increased for four days in a row as investors hope for cuts in global production.

U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.93 percent from 1.98 percent. European bond yields also sank. The euro weakened to $1.0829 from $1.0955.

Consol Energy jumped $1.19, or 18 percent, to $7.94 following its fourth-quarter report and another increase in the price of natural gas.

Electronic Arts traded lower. Its profit and revenue forecasts fell a bit short of Wall Street estimates. The video game maker said sales of its “Star Wars: Battlefront” game were strong, but analysts said investors were disappointed with the number of downloads, which are more profitable than sales of physical games.

The stock gave up $5.25, or 7.5 percent, to $64.55. That was its largest daily loss in almost three years.

January was a tough month for the market, and the beginning of the year was the worst in the history of the Dow average and the S&P 500 index. Both fell into a correction, or a drop of at least 10 percent from a recent peak.

The small-cap Russell 2000 index entered a bear market, which means a 20 percent slide.

The Dow and S&P 500 both fell more than 5 percent in January, while the Nasdaq lost almost 8 percent. For each index, that was the largest drop in a single month in years. The Russell finished January down almost 9 percent.

Google’s parent, Alphabet, might soon overtake Apple as the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. Alphabet has surged over the last year while Apple has struggled. Both companies are valued at more than $500 billion, and Apple is currently about $16 billion above Alphabet.

On Friday the Bank of Japan said it will charge money to banks that leave large amounts of cash parked at the central bank. The policy is intended to encourage commercial banks to lend more money. That could stimulate investment and growth in Japan’s struggling economy.

Japanese bonds and fell the dollar got stronger compared to the yen. Friday afternoon the dollar traded at 121.10 yen, a huge move for the currency, which traded at 118.78 yen late Thursday.

Luke Bartholomew, investment manager at Aberdeen Capital Management, said the move by Japan’s central bank is a change of course for the bank and for its governor, Haruhiko Kuroda.

“The surprise is they’re going to negative rates a little more than a week after Kuroda explicitly said they had no intention of doing so,” Bartholomew said. He said the Bank of Japan will need to do more to strengthen Japan’s economy.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 jumped 2.8 percent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gained 2.5 percent. The Shanghai Composite in mainland China rose 3.1 percent. European indexes also rose. Germany’s DAX climbed 1.6 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 added 2.6 percent and France’s CAC 40 advanced 2.2 percent.

Wholesale gasoline picked up 2.4 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $1.103 a gallon. Heating oil added 2.4 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $1.055 a gallon. Natural gas rose 11.6 cents, or 5.3 percent, to $2.298 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Metals prices didn’t change much. Gold rose 80 cents to $1,116.40 an ounce and silver gained 1.1 cents to $14.243 an ounce. Copper added 1.6 cents to $2.067 a pound.

Marley Jay can be reached at http://twitter.com/MarleyJayAP. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/marley-jay

 

Analysis: US faces resistance for tough sanctions on NKorea

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TOKYO (AP) — As North Korea awaits the United Nations’ response to its purported first H-bomb test, Washington is believed to be floating measures that could cause it some serious problems. They range from a ban on selling the North oil or buying its minerals to excluding banks doing business with it from accessing the dollar-based economy or even barring its flagship airline from entering other countries’ airspace.

According to some, such measures, if strictly implemented, could together be harsh enough to destabilize North Korea’s ruling regime — and that’s exactly why it would be a big surprise if they are on the U.N.’s final list.

Every major power in the region has good reason to want to keep North Korea from becoming a credible nuclear threat.

But China, which would have to be fully on board to make such sanctions work, has deep misgivings about the wisdom of really tough moves. Russia, no fan of U.S. foreign policy initiatives, has been moving closer to, not farther away from, the regime in Pyongyang. Even South Korea, which arguably has the most to lose if its northern neighbor’s nuclear program moves ahead unchecked, appears to be hesitant about taking drastic measures, such as shutting down its lucrative joint venture industrial zone with Pyongyang just north of the Demilitarized Zone.

The reason is straightforward.

Apart from the more hard-line thinkers in Washington, virtually no one wants to have to deal with what might happen if concerted international action were to actually destabilize Kim Jong Un’s regime, however strongly they may feel about its human rights record, authoritarian government and militantly defiant attitude toward Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and anyone else it sees as a threat.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ran into that wall this week during talks in Beijing with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. After meeting for more than four hours Wednesday, Kerry expressed his frustration with what the United States sees as China’s failure to do more rein in Pyongyang, noting that “more significant and impactful sanctions were put in place against Iran, which did not have a nuclear weapon than against North Korea, which does.”

“All nations, particularly those who seek a global leadership role, or have a global leadership role, have a responsibility to deal with this threat,” Kerry said.

In response, Wang said China, which is North Korea’s most important ally, chief trading partner and a key source of economic assistance, agreed on the need for a new U.N. resolution. But he suggested Beijing would not support new penalties even though it condemned the Jan. 6 test.

“Sanctions are not an end in themselves,” Wang said bluntly. “The new resolution should not provoke new tension in the situation, still less destabilize the Korean Peninsula.”

The gap between Washington and Beijing was evident in a particularly angry editorial Tuesday by China’s official Xinhua news agency, which — using an almost verbatim version of Pyongyang’s own take on the issue — put the blame on “Uncle Sam’s uncompromising hostility, manifested in its unceasing defaming, sanctions, isolation and provocation of the DPRK.”

It said the key to resolving tensions with North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, lies with the U.S. giving up its “antagonistic approach wrought from a Cold War mentality.”

So far, sanctions have included bans on weapon sales, dealing with blacklisted individuals or enterprises and other targeted measures. But they have clearly failed to achieve their main purpose — to denuclearize the North.

Though its economy has been battered, North Korea has nuclear weapons and has now enshrined in its constitution its right to maintain and develop them. The North says they are an indispensable part of its national defense strategy. No country with the possible exception of South Africa that has gone as far down the road as the North to becoming a nuclear power has ever turned back.

Even so, despite a plethora of sanctions and resolutions that have been thrown at North Korea since its first nuclear test in 2006, Kerry is correct in suggesting that far more action could be taken through sanctions and an enhanced effort to ensure they are strictly enforced by punishing North Korea’s “enablers” — who are mostly seen as Chinese businesses, state enterprises and entrepreneurs.

Unilaterally, the U.S. Congress is already moving in that direction.

Legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives targets any country, business or individual that materially contributes to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development, exports luxury goods to North Korea or engages with Pyongyang in money laundering, the manufacture of counterfeit goods or narcotics trafficking.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday approved its own version of the legislation, adding a measure that would target the North’s minerals and precious metal exports, a major source of income for Pyongyang and one that Chinese interests are heavily involved in. It is expected to be taken up by the full Senate in the second week of February.

The support for tougher measures against North Korea straddles the usually bitter partisan divide in Washington, and there is eagerness in both chambers of Congress to put legislation on President Barack Obama’s desk for signature.

“We must cut off Kim Jong Un’s access to the money he needs to fund his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” said Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a sponsor of the sanctions legislation.

The bills reflect a shift in focus in Washington toward what is known as the “weaponization of finance,” shutting businesses that deal with the North out of the U.S. financial system and in effect making it impossible for them to make transactions in U.S. dollars.

Washington has tried that before.

In 2005, the U.S. imposed sanctions against a Macau-based bank, Banco Delta Asia, which held about $25 million in North Korean funds. The move was aimed at cutting of funds for North Korea’s top leadership, but created a ripple effect in the global financial system amid uncertainty over what dealings might cause banks trouble. It was later lifted to facilitate nuclear talks.

Doing so more emphatically could have a dramatic impact not only on Kim Jong Un’s pocketbook but also on Chinese banking and business interests. And if done as an end run around the U.N. they could push Beijing and Washington into a more adversarial position, making coordinated implementation all the more unlikely.

“If major players in the Chinese financial system are exposed to U.S. sanctions, people have to consider what happens to the U.S., Chinese and global economies,” Joseph DeThomas, a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, wrote in a recent op-ed for 38 North, an influential website focusing on North Korea issues.

“‘Regime threatening sanctions’ are very blunt and powerful instruments,” he wrote. “They are final cards to be played before diplomacy ends and other bloodier means are employed to solve problems. It may not be wrong to let others know that such a card could be played, but it would be wise not to play it frivolously.”

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Talmadge has been AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. AP writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report. FILE – In this Oct. 10, 2015, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers remarks at a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. As North Korea awaits the United Nations’ response to its purported first H-bomb test, Washington is believed to be floating measures that could cause it some serious problems. They range from a ban on selling the North oil or buying its minerals to excluding banks doing business with it from accessing the dollar-based economy or even barring its flagship airline from entering other countries’ airspace. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner dies at age 74

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NEW YORK (AP) — Paul Kantner, a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane who stayed with the seminal San Francisco band through its transformation from 1960s hippies to 1970s hit makers as the eventual leader of successor group Jefferson Starship, has died at age 74.

Kantner, who drew upon his passion for politics and science fiction to help write such rock classics as “Wooden Ships” and “Volunteers,” died on Thursday of organ failure and septic shock. He had been admitted to a San Francisco hospital after falling ill earlier in the week, his former girlfriend and publicist Cynthia Bowman, the mother of one of his three children, told The Associated Press.

The guitarist and songwriter had survived close brushes with death as a younger man, including a motorcycle accident during the early 1960s and a 1980 cerebral hemorrhage, and he recovered from a heart attack last year.

Few bands were so identified with San Francisco or so well-embodied the idealism and hedonism of the late ’60s as Jefferson Airplane, its message boldly stated on buttons and bumper stickers that read “THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE LOVES YOU.”

The Airplane advocated sex, psychedelic drugs, rebellion and a communal lifestyle, operating out of an eccentric, Colonial Revival house near Haight-Ashbury. Its members supported various political and social causes, tossed out LSD at concerts and played at both the Monterey and Woodstock festivals.

Formed by veterans of the folk circuit in the mid-’60s, the Airplane combined folk, rock, blues and jazz and was the first group from a Bay Area scene that also featured Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead to achieve mainstream success, thanks to the classics “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

Besides Kantner, who played rhythm guitar and added backing vocals, the Airplane’s best-known lineup included singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin; lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen; bassist Jack Casady; and drummer Spencer Dryden, who died in 2005. Jefferson Airplane, named in part after blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and is scheduled to receive the Recording Academy’s lifetime achievement award this year.

“He was the first guy I picked for the band and he was the first guy who taught me how to roll a joint,” Balin wrote of Kantner on his Facebook page. “And although I know he liked to play the devil’s advocate, I am sure he has earned his wings now”

Kantner, who looked as much like a college student as a rock star with his glasses and shaggy blond hair, did not have the vocal or stage presence of Balin and Slick, or the instrumental power of Kaukonen or Casady. But he became the conscience of the band and by the end of the ’60s was shaping its increasingly radical direction, whether co-writing the militant “Volunteers” with Balin or inserting a profane taunt into his own incendiary “We Can Be Together,” leading to an extended fight with their record company, RCA.

Meanwhile, Kantner and Slick reigned as one of rock’s most prominent couples. Rolling Stone would note their contrasting styles, labeling Slick “the Acid Queen of outrageousness” and Kantner her “calm, dry, sardonic flip side.” In 1971, Slick gave birth to their daughter, whom the couple originally wanted to call God, but decided to name China. (China Kantner became an actress and MTV VJ.)

Slick and Kantner broke up in the late 1970s and Kantner had a son, Alexander, with Bowman, and another son, Gareth.

Kantner was the Airplane’s only native San Franciscan and its most political and experimental thinker. He had been a science fiction reader since childhood and with friends David Crosby and Jerry Garcia among others recorded a 1970 concept album about space travel, “Blows Against the Empire,” credited to Kantner and “Jefferson Starship.”

Kantner, Crosby and Stephen Stills would collaborate on the escapist, post-apocalypse fantasy “Wooden Ships,” which Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills and Nash each recorded and performed at Woodstock.

With perfect timing for a ’60s band, the Airplane began splitting apart at the end of the decade. Kaukonen and Casady founded the blues group Hot Tuna, and Balin, the band’s estranged original leader, also left. In 1974, Kantner and Slick brought in new musicians and renamed the group Jefferson Starship. Their sound softened and, with Balin back, they had hit singles with “Miracles” and “Count On Me” among others and a No. 1 album, “Red Octopus.”

But by the mid-1980s, when Slick and Mickey Thomas were lead vocalists, Kantner thought the music so “mundane” that he left the Jefferson Starship and successfully forced the remaining members not to use the name “Jefferson.” (His former bandmates called themselves “Starship” and had three No. 1 songs, including “Sara” and “We Built This City”).

Over the past 30 years, Kantner, Balin and Casady occasionally performed as the KBC Band and a reunited Airplane briefly toured and recorded. Kantner made a handful of solo and Jefferson Starships albums and used various musicians in the studio and on the road, including daughter China on vocals and son Alexander on bass.

Kantner was born in 1941, the musical and nonconforming son of a traveling salesman. He dropped out of college to pursue a career in folk music and became friendly with Crosby and future Starship member David Freiberg, spending days and nights on the beach, strumming guitars and indulging in Crosby’s premium stash of marijuana.

Soon after the release of the Airplane’s first album, “The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” the group underwent a fateful change: Vocalist Signe Toly Anderson left to have a baby in the fall of 1966 and was replaced by Slick, who had been a member of the Bay Area group The Great Society. Slick brought a fiery, charismatic style and, just as important, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” anthems for 1967’s “Summer of Love” and highlights of the Airplane’s landmark psychedelic album “Surrealistic Pillow.”

Kantner, who spent much of his life in his native city, would look back years later and remember a golden age of art, free love and joyous possibility. He joked that San Francisco was a privileged haven, “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” (The correct number is closer to 47). He believed deeply in the ’60s dream, often citing an anecdote that for a few days in 1966 the stars were so aligned that you could expect any wish to be granted.

“Which, needless to say, it was,” he liked to add.

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FILE – In this March 8, 1968 file photo, members of the rock group Jefferson Airplane pose for a photograph in San Francisco. From left, Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jack Casady. Kantner died at a San Francisco hospital on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 after falling ill earlier in the week, former girlfriend and publicist Cynthia Bowman told The Associated Press. (AP Photo)

Yemen suicide bomber said to be Dutch IS fighter

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The Islamic State affiliate in Yemen has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on Thursday that killed seven people and targeted the presidential palace in Aden, where the internationally-recognized president and his cabinet are based.

In an online statement posted on Twitter by the group’s supporters, IS identified the attacker as Abu Hanifa al-Hollandi, an Arabic nom de guerre that suggests he was Dutch. The last name in militants’ pseudonyms usually indicates their nationality or place of origin. His real name was not immediately known.

It was not possible to verify the claim. The group posted pictures that appeared to show the car bomb speeding toward cement barricades manned by presidential guards.

Earlier on Thursday, three Al-Jazeera journalists who were kidnapped in the war-ravaged Yemeni city of Taiz were released, the news network said in a statement. Journalists have been frequently targeted during Yemen’s conflict, which pits southern Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, against government forces backed by a Saudi-led military campaign.

The Houthis seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and in November that year the president fled to Aden.

The bombing took place around one kilometer away from his palace, which is heavily guarded by Emirati and Saudi special forces, officials said. They said that both President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah were inside the palace at the time of the explosion. Witnesses said that the bombing was heard across the city and demolished several nearby houses.

IS has claimed a series of large attacks in Aden including the assassination of a city governor last year and the bombing of a building that formerly housed the cabinet. Both the current governor and the city’s security chief have survived several assassination attempts.

The attack came days after top government officials held a meeting to discuss badly-needed security measures in Aden, officials said, adding that the new security plan involved the deployment of heavy weaponry to the city. They said that a first dispatch that included dozens of armored vehicles and rockets had already arrived, and that units of newly-trained civilians had joined the pro-government army in Aden.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Since the beginning of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen in March, al-Qaida and Yemen’s Islamic State affiliate have set up training camps in Aden and consolidated their presence in many of the city’s districts. Officials have said that al-Qaida specifically is moving its fighters in the outskirts of Aden in preparation for a major attack.

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera confirmed that its reporter Hamdi al-Bokari and crew members Abdulaziz al-Sabri and Moneer al-Sabai had been freed in the western city of Taiz.

Al-Bokari wrote on his Facebook page that he was abducted by Houthis and that they were subjected to “terrible mental torture.”

For months, residents and aid groups say the Houthis have been indiscriminately shelling Taiz and blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid there. Although al-Bokari blames Houthis for his kidnap, Taiz’s local militias include militants from al-Qaida’s offshoot in Yemen as well as hard-line Salafist Muslims whom some activists blamed for the abduction in recent days.

Debate takeaways: Without Trump, spotlight on Cruz, Rubio

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It was clear, even before it started, that Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate would be dramatically different.

GOP front-runner Donald Trump had voluntarily given up his regular place at center stage. He skipped the debate, preferring to mount a rally across town to punish Fox News Channel for “toying” with him.

The billionaire businessman’s absence was addressed early and then his Republican rivals quickly moved on, getting a far better opportunity to shine. Overall, the two-hour affair featured a sober tone focused more on substance than personality.

There were exceptions, of course. Ted Cruz defended his authenticity and Marco Rubio faced pointed questions on immigration.

But just days before Iowa’s leadoff caucuses, there were none of the breakout moments that have sometimes characterized the more colorful debates featuring Trump, battling Cruz for first place in the 2016 primary season’s opening contest.

Some takeaways from Thursday’s Republican debate:

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ELEPHANT NOT IN THE ROOM

Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to dominate the stage. There is little doubt he helped his rivals by not showing up.

He was mocked early and largely forgotten. Cruz set the tone with a sarcastic impression of his top rival: “I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way …”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also weighed in: “It’s not about Donald Trump. He’s an entertaining guy. He’s the greatest show on earth.”

Beyond a few playful jabs, the two-hour debate was a Trump-free zone, one of the few such events in the race so far.

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CRUZ THE FRONT-RUNNER

Cruz fought to make sure he was positioned at center stage in Trump’s absence, but did little to take advantage of the opportunity. He tried to embrace the role of de facto front-runner at the outset, pointing out that he was being attacked by several rivals — even before there were any pointed exchanges.

Cruz later faced sharp questions on immigration, national security and, perhaps most importantly, whether he was trustworthy. Trust is the theme of the fiery conservative’s campaign, and several candidates questioned his authenticity.

“Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes,” Rubio charged.

Cruz fought back by accusing Rubio of bending to the will of donors on immigration, but it was hardly a decisive victory.

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NO AMNESTY FOR RUBIO

Rubio did not help himself among the conservatives who question his position on immigration. The issue is by far his greatest vulnerability as he tries to convince skeptical GOP activists that he doesn’t support so-called amnesty.

The debate moderators played a series of video clips highlighting Rubio’s apparent shift on the issue, which put the first-term senator on the defensive at the outset of a key exchange.

At best, Rubio may have clouded the issue of whether he had backed off his earlier calls for comprehensive legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship.

But rival Jeb Bush seemed to get the best of him in an exchange in which Bush questioned Rubio’s retreat on the issue.

“You shouldn’t cut and run,” Bush charged.

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BUSH CLOUDS LANE

Bush repeatedly beat back questions about his long-term viability in the 2016 contest, insisting he has a path to the nomination and would ultimately defeat leading Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“We’re just starting. The first vote hasn’t been counted. Why don’t we let the process work?” Bush said.

Overall, Bush had more success on the debate stage without having to contend with Trump. His strength — and full-steam-ahead approach — was a pointed reminder that the fight for the party’s mainstream wing is far from over.

Bush and Rubio are competing with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to win over the GOP’s centrist wing. Some party officials hoped Rubio would have emerged as the consensus choice by now.

Bush defended rounds of anti-Rubio attack ads.

“This is beanbag compared to what the Clinton hit machine is going to do to the Republican nominee,” Bush said.

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TRUMP’S COUNTERPROGRAMMING

It was a risky move politically, but Donald Trump helped raise $6 million to benefit veterans at an event three miles away from the debate stage.

Instead of going after his rivals on national television, Trump read out the names of wealthy friends who’d pledged major contributions to veterans’ causes. When he announced he’d pledged $1 million himself, the crowd erupted in cheers.

He explained to the Drake University crowd that he had little choice but to skip the debate. Trump admitted he didn’t know if the decision would hurt him in the polls, but tried to cast it as a sign of strength.

“You have to stick up for your rights. When you’re treated badly, you have to stick up for your rights,” he said.

As for the debate, Trump predicted it would have far fewer viewers without him on the stage. That may be true, but Iowa voters will decide in four days whether Trump hurt his chances in the 2016 race simply to prove a point.

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Republican presidential candidates (L-R) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, talk after the Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Follow Steve Peoples on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples

FBI shows video of Tuesday shooting of Oregon occupier

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BURNS, Ore. (AP) — A video showing the shooting death of an occupier of an Oregon wildlife refuge appears to show the man reaching into his jacket before he fell into the snow. The FBI said the man had a loaded gun in his pocket.

Authorities played the video shot by the FBI at a Thursday evening news conference, in an apparent effort to counter claims that the man killed in the confrontation Tuesday on a remote Oregon high-country road — Robert “LaVoy” Finicum — did nothing to provoke officers.

The FBI’s release of the footage came as four occupiers remaining at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge refused to leave without assurances they wouldn’t be arrested. The group’s jailed leader, Ammon Bundy, urged them to surrender. The occupation began nearly a month ago.

During the confrontation in which Finicum was killed, the FBI and Oregon State Troopers arrested five main figures in the occupation, including Bundy. Bundy and several of the other occupiers have another federal court hearing scheduled for Friday afternoon.

The video, shot by the FBI from aircraft, shows Bundy’s vehicle stopped by police on a road. He and an occupier riding with him — Brian Cavalier — were arrested. A white truck driven by Finicum was stopped but took off, with officers in pursuit. The video shows Finicum’s vehicle plowing into a snowbank when encountering a roadblock.

A man identified as Finicum gets out of the truck. At first, he has his hands up, but then he appears to reach into his pocket and he falls into the snow.

“On at least two occasions, Finicum appears to reach his right hand toward a pocket on the left inside portion of his jacket,” said Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge for the FBI in Portland.

“He did have a loaded 9mm semi-automatic handgun in the pocket,” he said.

Bretzing also said Finicum’s truck nearly hit an FBI agent before it got stuck in the snow.

“Actions have consequences,” Bretzing said. “The FBI and OSP tried to effect these arrests peacefully.”

The FBI posted the video to its YouTube channel (http://bit.ly/209MgEw ).

With Finicum lying in the snow, the video shows the arrest of two other occupiers as they got out of the stuck truck: Ryan Bundy, who is Ammon’s brother, and Shawna Cox. Bretzing said another woman was in the truck but was not arrested. He did not identify her.

Bretzing said agents and troopers “provided medical assistance to Finicum” after they were “confident that they had addressed any further threats.” He said that happened about 10 minutes after the shooting.

Two loaded .223 caliber semi-automatic rifles and a loaded revolver were found in the truck, Bretzing said.

Bretzing said that when Finicum’s truck was first stopped, an occupier riding with him — Ryan Payne — got out and surrendered. He said troopers and agents ordered others in the truck to surrender but Finicum sped off.

Bundy and his followers were on their way to a meeting in the community of John Day when then encountered the FBI-led operation to apprehend them. The FBI acted amid growing calls that something be done to end the occupation, including from Oregon’s governor.

The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office on Thursday confirmed the person shot in the Tuesday confrontation was Finicum, a 54-year-old Arizona rancher.

At the news conference in Burns, Bretzing said four occupiers are still holed up at the wildlife refuge. “The negotiators continue to work around the clock to talk to those four people in an effort to get them to come out peacefully,” he said.

The occupation by ranchers and others began on Jan. 2, and at one point there were a couple of dozen people holed up, demanding that the federal government turn public lands over to local control. But the compound has been emptying out since the arrest of Bundy, and 10 others over the past few days, and with the death of Finicum.

Oregon Public Broadcasting on Thursday spoke with the holdouts and identified them as David Fry, who is from Ohio, husband and wife Sean and Sandy Anderson of Idaho, and Jeff Banta of Nevada.

Ammon Bundy on Thursday released a statement through his attorney repeating his call for the last occupiers to leave peacefully: “Turn yourselves in and do not use physical force.”

All 11 people under arrest have been charged with a felony count of conspiring to impede federal officers from carrying out their duties through force or intimidation. Three of the 11 were arrested Wednesday night when they left the refuge.

Ammon Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a tense 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights.

The group came to the desert of eastern Oregon in the dead of winter to decry what it calls onerous federal land restrictions and to object to the prison sentences of two local ranchers convicted of setting fires.

The charges against Bundy and others say that the refuge’s 16 employees have been prevented from reporting to work because of threats of violence.

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Petty reported from Portland, Oregon. Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, in Washington, D.C., Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, and Martha Bellisle and Lisa Baumann in Seattle contributed to this report. This photo taken from an FBI video shows Robert “LaVoy” Finicum after he was fatally shot by police Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 near Burns, Ore. A video released Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 by the FBI of the shooting death of a spokesman for the armed occupiers of a wildlife refuge shows the man reaching into his jacket before he fell into the snow. The FBI said the man had a gun in his pocket. (FBI via AP)

Business: Japan leads global stocks higher after stimulus move

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Japan led global stock markets higher Friday after its central bank introduced a negative interest rate policy in the latest move to overcome malaise in the third-biggest economy. The yen dived against the dollar and the euro.

KEEPING SCORE: Britain’s FTSE 100 rose 1.2 percent to 6,004.94 and France’s CAC 40 advanced 1.4 percent to 4,382.73. Germany’s DAX climbed 1.3 percent to 9,763.69. Futures indicated that Wall Street was set to extend gains. Dow futures added 1 percent and S&P 500 futures climbed 1.1 percent.

JAPAN RATE: The Bank of Japan said it is imposing a 0.1 percent fee on some deposits left with the central bank, effectively a negative interest rate. It hopes that will encourage commercial banks to lend more, rather than keeping cash at the BOJ, and stimulate investment and growth. Latest data showed Japan’s core inflation rate was just 0.5 percent in 2015 on low oil prices while consumer spending fell 4.4 percent in December over a year earlier.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Concerns had been mounting that the BOJ were increasingly tapped out in their ability to ease monetary policy,” Angus Nicholson, a market analyst at IG in Melbourne, Australia, said in a commentary. “The announcement opens the door to sustain further easing by the BOJ throughout the year.”

ASIA’S DAY: After gyrating between losses and gains, Japan’s Nikkei 225 finished up 2.8 percent at 17,518.30. The policy decision is a possible boost for the economy but viewed by investors as negative for banks. Shares of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group fell 3.8 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gained 2.5 percent to 19,683.11 and the Shanghai Composite in mainland China rose 3.1 percent to 2,737.60. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 added 0.6 percent to 5,005.50 while South Korea’s Kospi closed up 0.3 percent at 1,912.06. Stocks rose in Taiwan, India and Southeast Asia.

ENERGY TALK: The Kremlin said on Thursday it is actively discussing the instability of oil markets with the world’s key producers. Even though Russia said there was no concrete plan for a coordinated cut in production, it was enough to push the price of oil higher. Investors hope that talks could lead to production cuts that would begin to alleviate a global supply glut.

OIL PRICE: Benchmark U.S. crude was up 35 cents to $33.57 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 92 cents, or 2.8 percent to close at $33.22 a barrel on Thursday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, gained 38 cents to $35.18.

CURRENCIES: The dollar jumped to 120.85 yen from 118.84 yen the previous day. The euro weakened to $1.0911 from $1.0932 but against the Japanese currency rose to 131.87 yen from 129.92 yen.

 

Change of U.S. Command Set in Afghanistan

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —- WASHINGTON — President Obama will nominate Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. to lead American military operations in Afghanistan, where the United States is at a critical juncture in the fight against the Taliban, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

If confirmed by the Senate, General Nicholson would replace Gen. John F. Campbell, who has held the position since 2014. It was not clear what General Campbell would do next.

The Taliban now control significant parts of Afghanistan, and American Special Operations forces and Afghan troops have been battling the group’s fighters in the southern part of the country. Those developments are a sign of how the conflict has continued even after Mr. Obama announced the end of the United States’ combat mission in Afghanistan in late 2014.

In October, Mr. Obama announced that he had slowed the withdrawal of American troops from the country. At the time, the president said that the United States would keep 9,800 troops there through most of 2016. That number is set to fall to about 5,500 at the end of this year or in early 2017. The United States has had forces in Afghanistan since 2001.

General Nicholson is currently the commander of NATO’s allied land command. Before holding that position, he was the head of the 82nd Airborne Division. In Afghanistan, where he has spent three and a half years, he has been the chief of staff of operations for the allied forces and a deputy commander for the southern part of the country.

“The good news is that we have a deep bench,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in a statement.

He said that General Nicholson “knows what it means to lead a responsive and nimble force, and how to build the capacity of our partners to respond to immediate and long-term threats and remain adaptable to confront evolving challenges. And he understands the importance and complexity of our mission in Afghanistan.”

Correction: January 28, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated John F. Campbell’s military rank. He is a general, not a major general.

3 more arrested as Bundy urges refuge occupiers to leave

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BURNS, Ore. (AP) — Three members of an armed group occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge surrendered to authorities, officials said, hours after their jailed leader urged remaining militants to abandon the site and “go home.”

The three arrests Wednesday at a checkpoint law officers have setup near the refuge, followed the arrests a day earlier of leader Ammon Bundy and seven others.

The FBI and Oregon State Police said in a statement that 45-year-old Duane Leo Ehmer of Irrigon, Oregon, and 34-year-old Dylan Wade Anderson of Provo, Utah, turned themselves in around 3:30 p.m. And 43-year-old Jason S. Patrick of Bonaire, Georgia, did the same a few hours later.

The men were described as being in contact with the FBI and officials said the men surrendered to agents on a road near the refuge.

After Bundy made his first court appearance in Portland on Wednesday, his attorney, Mike Arnold, read this statement from his client: “Please stand down. Go home and hug your families. This fight is now in the courts.”

It was unclear whether the rest of Bundy’s followers still holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns were ready to heed his advice. It was believed perhaps a half-dozen remained late Wednesday, apparently sitting around a campfire.

Meanwhile, details began to emerge about the confrontation Tuesday on a remote highway that resulted in the arrest of Bundy and other leading figures in the group of occupiers, and in the death of militant Robert Finicum.

Bundy followers gave conflicting accounts of how Finicum died. One said Finicum charged at FBI agents, who then shot him. A member of the Bundy family said Finicum did nothing to provoke the agents.

An Oregon man who says he witnessed the shootout says he heard about a half-dozen shots but didn’t see anyone get hit, and that the shooting happened quickly — over maybe 12 or 15 seconds. Raymond Doherty told KOIN-TV that he was about 100 feet back and couldn’t see who specifically was shooting. But, he added, “I saw them shooting at each other.”

Authorities refused to release any details about the encounter or even to verify that it was Finicum who was killed.

Also on Wednesday, a federal judge in Portland unsealed a criminal complaint that said the armed group had explosives and night-vision goggles and that they were prepared to fight at the refuge or in the nearby town of Burns.

Someone told authorities about the equipment on Jan. 2, when the group took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, according to the document.

Bundy and the seven others are charged with felony counts of “conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats.”

The criminal complaint stresses that point. It states that the 16 employees at the wildlife refuge “have been prevented from reporting to work because of threats of violence posed by the defendants and others occupying the property.”

Federal law officials and Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward held a news conference on Wednesday in which they called on the rest of the occupiers to go home. There is a huge law enforcement presence in the region, and the FBI has now set up checkpoints outside the refuge.

FBI agent Greg Bretzing said people could leave through checkpoints “where they will be identified.” FBI officials said Wednesday night, in addition to the three men arrested, five people left the refuge through the checkpoints and were released without arrest.

Bretzing also defended the FBI-led operation that resulted in the arrest of Bundy and other leaders, and in the death of Finicum. “I will say that the armed occupiers were given ample opportunities to leave peacefully,” he said.

Ward said multiple law-enforcement agencies put together “the best tactical plan they could.”

Bundy followers took to social media to offer conflicting accounts of Finicum’s final moments.

In a video posted to Facebook, Mike McConnell said he was driving a vehicle carrying Ammon Bundy and another occupier, Brian Cavalier. He said Finicum was driving a truck and with him were Ryan Bundy — Ammon’s brother — as well as three others.

He said the convoy was driving through a forest when they were stopped by agents in heavy-duty trucks. He said agents first pulled him out of the vehicle, followed by Ammon Bundy and Cavalier.

When agents approached the truck driven by Filicum, he drove off with officers in pursuit. McConnell said he did not see what happened next, but he heard from others who were in that vehicle that they encountered a roadblock.

The truck got stuck in a snowbank, and Finicum got out and “charged them. He went after them,” McConnell said.

Relatives of Ammon Bundy offered similar accounts, but they said Finicum did nothing to provoke FBI agents.

Briana Bundy, a sister of Ammon Bundy, said he called his wife after his arrest. He said the group was stopped by state and federal officers.

She said people in the two vehicles complied with instructions to get out with their hands up.

“LaVoy shouted, ‘Don’t shoot. We’re unarmed,’ “Briana Bundy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They began to fire on them. Ammon said it happened real fast.”

“Ammon said, ‘They murdered him in cold blood.”

McConnell had a different perspective.

“Any time someone takes off with a vehicle away from law enforcement after they’ve exercised a stop, it’s typically considered an act of aggression, and foolish,” he said in the Facebook video.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy are the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights.

The group they led came to the frozen high desert of eastern Oregon to decry what it calls onerous federal land restrictions and to object to the prison sentences of two local ranchers convicted of setting fires.

In the small community of Burns, near the refuge, 80-year-old Bev Schaff said the occupation has “split this town.”

“Some people are for it and some against it. But I think everyone is ready for it to be over,” Schaff said.

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Petty reported from Portland. Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, and Martha Bellisle and Lisa Baumann in Seattle contributed to this report. Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward speaks at press conference at the Harney County Community Center in Burns, Ore., Thursday, Jan. 27, 2016. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

Car-making deals, protests greet Iranian president in Paris

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PARIS (AP) — France welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday with a lucrative car-making agreement and pledges to boost trade after a diplomatic deal easing nuclear tensions — but clouds hung over the historic trip.

France has asked its European Union partners to consider new sanctions on Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests, officials have told The Associated Press. The possibility highlights continued suspicions between Iran and the West despite the recent agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program that prompted the lifting of earlier sanctions.

Rouhani arrived in Paris on Wednesday from Rome, where billions of euros worth of trade deals were reached, and was formally greeted to France on Thursday morning at the gold-domed Invalides monument where Napoleon is buried.

Rouhani’s visit was also met with protests, notably over recent executions in Iran. A nearly naked woman hung from a fake noose off a Paris bridge Thursday next to a huge banner reading “Welcome Rouhani, Executioner of Freedom.”

But the thrust of the trip was about improving economic and diplomatic relations after years of hostility.

“France is available for Iran,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said alongside Rouhani and a large group of high-level French executives whose companies are interested in resuming trade with his long-isolated nation of 80 million people.

Later Rouhani and French President Francois Hollande will oversee a ceremony for signing about 20 bilateral accords.

France’s Peugeot-Citroen announced a joint venture with automaker Iran Khodro to make 200,000 cars a year outside Tehran. Carlos Tavares, chairman of the PSA Peugeot-Citroen managing board, said it will be a 50-50 joint venture, aiming to produce three new models of cars starting late next year.

“We must go beyond those wounds” caused by sanctions, Tavares said. Peugeot was a major player in Iran’s car market before the sanctions were imposed.

Iran’s state-owned newspaper reported Thursday that several European airlines will resume their flights to Iran, halted amid the nuclear sanctions.

The EU and the U.S. lifted sanctions on Tehran on Jan. 16 in exchange for U.N. certification that Iran had scaled back its nuclear programs. Iran said those programs were peaceful but critics feared it wanted to build nuclear weapons.

While those sanctions were lifted earlier this month, Iran’s latest ballistic missile tests prompted new U.S. sanctions.

Rouhani also met Pope Francis on the first such Iranian foray into Europe since 1999. Rouhani was originally scheduled to visit Paris in November, but the trip was called off after Nov. 13 Islamic extremist attacks that killed 130 people.

Paris also wants to draw Tehran into a role as peacemaker in a Middle East that is fraught with civil war in Syria, where Iran has played an active role in support of President Bashar Assad, and in Yemen.

France, which has deep ties with Arab countries, also conducts a balancing act in the region. Last week, Fabius visited Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, Iran’s fierce rival, and Paris will shortly welcome the Saudi crown prince.

Sweden to deport up to 80,000 asylum-seekers

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STOCKHOLM (AP) — Interior Minister Anders Ygeman says Sweden could deport between 60,000 and 80,000 asylum-seekers in coming years.

Ygeman told newspaper Dagens Industri that since about 45 percent of asylum applications are currently rejected, the country must get ready to send back tens of thousands of the 163,000 who sought shelter in Sweden last year.

“I think that it could be about 60,000 people, but it could also be up to 80,000,” Ygeman was quoted as saying.

His spokesman, Victor Harju, confirmed the quotes Thursday, adding that the minister was simply applying the current approval rate to the record number of asylum-seekers that arrived in 2015. Harju adds: “That rate could of course change.”

Germany and Sweden were the top destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe last year

In the sea near a Greek island, the coast guard at least 11 people, most of them children, died Thursday in the latest migrant boat sinking.

Ten people were rescued, while the bodies of four boys, three girls, three men and one woman were recovered.

Another boat sank off the island of Kos on Wednesday, leaving seven dead, including two children. Only two people were rescued from that incident.

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In this Friday, Jan. 15, 2016 photo, refugees wait their turn at the Tabakika registration center, Chios island, Greece. Despite the bitter winter cold and rough seas, tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing violence and poverty in their homelands continue to risk their lives to make the relatively short but dangerous journey from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands, seeking a better future in Europe. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Business: Asian stocks fluctuate as investors mull latest from Fed

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HONG KONG (AP) — Asian stock markets wavered Thursday after the Federal Reserve sounded a note of caution on the world economy and its effect on U.S. growth but left the door open for rate hikes.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index gave up early gains to slip 0.4 percent to 17,098.60. South Korea’s Kospi added 0.5 percent to 1,906.56. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng also turned negative in the afternoon session, dipping 0.1 percent to 19,029.62. The Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China lost 0.8 percent to 2,711.53. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 advanced 0.6 percent to 4,976.20. Markets in Taiwan and Southeast Asia rose.

POLICY PACE: The Federal Reserve issued a cautious assessment of the global economy while also downgrading its view of U.S. growth, after officials from the central bank wrapped up their latest policy meeting Wednesday. The Fed’s December rate hike had raised expectations of several more increases this year, with the first as early as March. That was a prospect that unsettled investors used to years of easy credit fueling a boom in stock markets. However, in their latest statement, officials suggested that if stock market turmoil and global economic weakness persist, they might slow down the pace of interest rate hikes though they gave themselves room to maneuver by not committing outright to a delay.

ANALYST VIEW: “In terms of the Fed overnight: It’s clear that global central banks are now starting to be concerned about the impact of global growth worries and the latest plunge in oil prices in terms of meeting their inflation targets and as a result are now starting to sound more dovish,” Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital in Sydney, said in a report.

WALL STREET: Major U.S. benchmarks sank on the Fed’s statement. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 1.4 percent to 15,944.46 and the Standard & Poor’s 500 dropped 1.1 percent to 1,882.95. A slump in tech stocks hammered the Nasdaq composite index, which lost 2.2 percent to 4,468.17.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude rose lost 31 cents to $31.99 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 85 cents, or 2.7 percent, to close at $32.30 a barrel on Wednesday in New York. Brent crude, the benchmark for international oils, fell 29 cents to $33.64 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro slipped to $1.0891 from $1.0905. The dollar rose to 118.82 yen from 118.46 yen.

 

Arrests of Oregon standoff leaders leaves 1 person dead

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BURNS, Ore. (AP) — Federal and state law officers arrested the leaders of an armed group occupying a national wildlife refuge, during a traffic stop along a highway in Oregon’s frozen high country that prompted gunfire and left one man dead.

Militant leader Ammon Bundy and his followers were reportedly heading to a community meeting at the senior center Tuesday in John Day, about 70 miles north of Burns, to address local residents to discuss their views on federal management of public lands.

In a statement, the FBI and Oregon State Police said agents had made a total of eight arrests — including Ammon Bundy.

Oregon State Police confirmed that its troopers were involved in the traffic-stop shooting. One of those arrested, described only as a man, suffered non-life-threatening wounds, the agencies said. Another man “who was a subject of a federal probable cause arrest” was killed, they said. The agencies said they would not release further information pending identification by the medical examiner.

The Oregonian reported ( http://bit.ly/1nOammV ) that Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was the person killed, citing the man’s daughter. The 55-year-old was a frequent and public presence at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, often speaking for the group at news conferences.

Arianna Finicum Brown confirmed her father’s death to the paper, saying “he would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”

It was unclear how many people remained in the buildings at the refuge. Late Tuesday night there was no obvious police presence there and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked for “patience as officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution.”

Early Wednesday, the FBI and Oregon State Police established a series of checkpoints along key routes into and out refuge. The agencies said in a statement that the containment was to ‘better ensure the safety of community members.” According to the statement, only Harney County ranchers who own property in specific areas will be required to show identification and be allowed to pass.

Brand Thornton, one of Bundy’s supporters, said he left the refuge Monday and wasn’t sure what those remaining would do.

“The entire leadership is gone,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I wouldn’t blame any of them for leaving.”

Thornton called the arrests “a dirty trick” by law enforcement.

In addition to Ammon Bundy, those arrested were: his brother Ryan Bundy, 43; Brian Cavalier, 44; Shawna Cox, 59; and Ryan Payne, 32 – apprehended during the traffic stop on U.S. Highway 395 Tuesday afternoon. Authorities said two others — Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, 45, and Peter Santilli, 50 — were arrested separately in Burns, while FBI agents in Arizona arrested another, Jon Eric Ritzheimer, 32.

Each will face a federal felony charge of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats, authorities said. Authorities released few other details. A new conference with the FBI, local sheriff and other was scheduled for late Wednesday morning.

Ammon Bundy’s group, which has included people from as far away as Arizona and Michigan, seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2 as part of a long-running dispute over public lands in the West.

The confrontation came amid increasing calls for law enforcement to take action against Bundy for the illegal occupation of the wildlife refuge. They previously had taken a hands-off approach, reflecting lessons learned during bloody standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during the 1990s.

Many residents of Harney County, where the refuge is located, have been among those demanding that Bundy leave. Many sympathize with his criticism of federal land management policies of public lands but opposed the refuge takeover. They feared violence could erupt.

“I am pleased that the FBI has listened to the concerns of the local community and responded to the illegal activity occurring in Harney County by outside extremists,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a statement. ” I hope that the remaining individuals occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will peacefully surrender.”

The Bundys are the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights.

The state police said it would investigate the officer-involved shooting.

The militants, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, came to the frozen high desert of eastern Oregon to decry what it calls onerous federal land restrictions and to object to the prison sentences of two local ranchers convicted of setting fires.

Specifically, the group wanted federal lands turned over to local authorities. The U.S. government controls about half of all land in the West. Conflicts over Western land use stretch back decades.

In the 1970s, Nevada and other states pushed for local control in what was known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Supporters wanted more land for cattle grazing, mining and timber harvesting.

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Associated Press reporters Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, Gene Johnson and Lisa Baumann in Seattle and Terrence Petty and Kristena Hansen in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.

Czechs donate weapons, ammunition to Iraq, Jordan

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PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech prime minister says his government has approved a plan to donate further weapons and ammunition to Iraq and also ammunition to Jordan to help them fight Islamic State militants.

Bohuslav Sobotka says 6,500 assault rifles and 7 million pieces of ammunition will be transported to Iraq by the U.S. for the Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces.

Sobotka also says he hopes that after last week’s visit of Prime Minister David Cameron to Prague Britain will drop its objections to a planned sale of Czech-made L-159 light combat planes to Iraq.

He says the country will also provide Jordan with about 7 million pieces of ammunition for assault rifles and machine guns.

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RAMADI, Iraq (AP) — So complete was the destruction of Ramadi that a local reporter who had visited the city many times hardly recognized it.

“Honestly, this is the main street,” Amaj Hamid, a member of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces, told the TV crew as they entered from the southwest.

He swerved to avoid the aftermath of months of fighting: rubble, overturned cars and piles of twisted metal. Airstrikes and homemade bombs laid by the Islamic State group had shredded the poured-concrete walls and ceilings of the houses and shops along the road.

Ramadi, once home to about 500,000 people, now largely lies in ruins. A U.N. report released Saturday used satellite imagery to assess the devastation, concluding that more than 3,000 buildings had been damaged and nearly 1,500 destroyed in the city 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad.

All told, more than 60 percent of Anbar’s provincial capital has been destroyed by constant air bombardment and the scorched-earth practices of IS fighters in retreat, according to local estimates.

Officials are already scrambling to raise money to rebuild, even as operations continue to retake neighborhoods in the north and east. Their concern is that the devastation could breed future conflicts, recreating the conditions that allowed the Islamic State group to first gain a foothold in the province in late 2013.

While the U.S.-led coalition acknowledges the importance of reconstruction efforts, the actual money pledged to help rebuild is just a fraction of the amount spent on the military effort against IS.

In previous fights for the city, government buildings, bridges and key highways bore the brunt of airstrikes and heavy artillery. But during the most recent round of violence, airstrikes targeted the largely residential areas where IS fighters were based.

After the Islamic State group overran Ramadi in May, storming and then largely destroying the city’s symbolically important central government complex, fighters quickly fanned out into the city’s dense neighborhoods. Using civilian homes as bases, IS turned living rooms into operations centers and bedrooms into barracks.

Brig. Gen. Muhammad Rasheed Salah of the Anbar provincial police said if civilians don’t start receiving compensation soon, tribal violence will quickly follow liberation.

“Listen, I am a son of this land,” he said explaining he is from a village on the outskirts of Ramadi still under IS control. “My house was destroyed by someone I know. He was my friend, my neighbor. In cases like this, you need to be able to provide people with something,” he said referring to government help for rebuilding.

U.S. and Iraqi officials estimate the price tag for rebuilding to be in the hundreds of millions. The Iraqi government, in the midst of an economic downturn triggered in part by the falling price of oil, has shifted almost all costs of rebuilding to the provinces, ruling that reconstruction must come from existing budget allocations. That means provincial governors will depend almost entirely on international aid.

“We will never kill our way out of the Daesh problem,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, told a recent news conference in Baghdad following the Ramadi gains. “We cannot bomb our way to peace here. The key to defeating this enemy and making it stick is the reconciliation and the stabilization process.”

That phrasing is often repeated by U.S. and coalition officials to describe wide-reaching plans to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq. But, so far monetary pledges don’t line up with the rhetoric.

The United States has pledged $15.3 million to stabilization efforts in Iraq, according to figures provided by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That’s compared with the estimated $280 million that the Department of Defense spends to fight IS each month, according to figures released by department and confirmed by coalition officials in Baghdad.

“We’re doing the best with the money we have, but it’s not enough, said Lise Grande, the U.N.’s deputy special representative to Iraq who is overseeing reconstruction efforts. “Anytime you have mass destruction like (in Ramadi), particularly if you have mass destruction of private houses and large-scale infrastructure, this is where the costs really start to add up.”

Returning the rule of law and stability to Ramadi in the months ahead would also help “pave the way” for future military operations in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, said Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the governor of Anbar.

“The best way to secure any area and protect it against the return of Daesh is for the local residents and the local police to return to their areas and rebuild their lives,” Haimour told The Associated Press. “In order for residents to support local security (forces), they need to see them doing a good job.”

Haimour would not specify exactly how much money was needed or how much had been raised, but he said, “We have a long way to go.”

Even a significant increase in reconstruction help won’t necessarily stop the tribal vengeance and vendettas once Ramadi is fully liberated from IS hands.

Salah, the Anbar police general, said no amount of money from the government would prevent him from going after the men he suspects are responsible for destroying his home.

“No matter what,” he said, “I will have my revenge.”

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Associated Press Writer Khalid Mohammed contributed to this report. In this Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016 photo, Iraqi soldiers stand near destroyed armoured vehicles amid the devastation in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Ramadi, once home to 500,000 people, lies largely in ruins after months of air bombardment and the scorched-earth practices of IS fighters in retreat. The U.S-led coalition acknowledges the importance of rebuilding, but actual money for the effort falls far short. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Bombings kill 20 in Syria as peace talks invitations go out

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BEIRUT (AP) — Multiple bombings struck a government-run checkpoint in the central Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding over a hundred amid intense political jockeying ahead of U.N.-backed peace talks scheduled to begin in Geneva on Friday.

The office of the U.N. envoy for Syria said it sent out invitations for the talks, but with just three days to go, the opposition is still undecided about whether it will attend. One opposition official suggested the Saudi-backed opposition delegation may boycott the talks.

Khawla Mattar, a spokeswoman for Staffan de Mistura, told The Associated Press in Geneva that the envoy would not make public the numbers and identities of the invitees until his office gets “feedback from the invited parties” — a sign of the delicacy of his task.

The talks are meant to start a political process to end the conflict that began in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad’s rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown. The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.

The attack in Homs, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, came as government forces retook a southern town from opposition fighters and other militants.

Homs Governor Talal Barazi told the SANA news agency that the checkpoint was hit “first by a car bomb, which was then followed by a suicide bombing.”

Syrian state television broadcast footage of the aftermath of the attack, showing cars ablaze and extensive damage to shops and apartments around the site of the explosion in the Zahra neighborhood, which is inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The district has been a frequent target of bombings in recent months.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group which relies on a network of informants across Syria, quoted witnesses at the scene as saying the first bomber attracted a crowd of security agents by shouting curses about the Homs governor, then blew up his vehicle.

Meanwhile, in southern Syria, government forces seized the town of Sheikh Maskin, culminating an offensive that began in late December to retake the town after seizing the nearby Brigade 82 military base.

Sheikh Maskin lies near the highway connecting Damascus and the Jordanian border, and connects the Syrian capital to Daraa, a border town held by opposition fighters. Its fall is the latest in a string of battlefield successes for Assad’s military that have bolstered his hand ahead of the planned peace talks.

The Saudi-backed opposition was meeting Tuesday in Riyadh to make a final decision about whether to attend the talks. The opposition has accused Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, of trying to “dictate” who from the opposition would participate.

Tensions over who would be invited to the talks, the cause of earlier delays, continued Tuesday.

A senior opposition official suggested the opposition may not travel to Geneva in the absence of confidence-building measures by the government regarding humanitarian issues.

“It is better for the conference not to start rather than start and fail,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give press statements while the opposition meeting was still underway.

Russia has argued against Turkey’s demand to keep a leading Kurdish group out of the talks, and said it expects the U.N. envoy to resist “blackmail” by Turkey and others, reflecting the sharp differences that remain.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized at a press conference in Moscow that the main Syrian Kurdish group — the Democratic Union Party, or PYD — plays an important role in fighting the Islamic State group and is an essential part of any political settlement in Syria.

Turkey sees the PYD and its YPG militia as branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, which has waged a long insurgency against Ankara and is branded a terrorist group by Turkey and several Western countries.

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Vatican: Iran must join fight against terrorism

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis held talks with Iran’s president at the Vatican Tuesday, calling on Tehran to play a key role in stopping the spread of terrorism as Iran tries to improve its image in the global arena following an agreement on its nuclear program.

The pontiff warmly clasped the hand of President Hassan Rouhani in the first official call paid on a pontiff by an Iranian president since 1999. They held 40 minutes of private talks before Rouhani met with other top Vatican officials.

The talks “delved into the conclusion and application of the nuclear accord, and the important role that Iran is called upon to play, together with other countries of the region, was highlighted,” the Holy See said.

It added that that role should “foster adequate political solutions to the issues plaguing the Middle East, fighting the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking.”

The “cordial” talks also stressed common spiritual values, the statement said.

Usually it’s the pope who asks his audience to pray for him. This time, after the two men spoke with the help of Italian and Farsi language translators, it was the guest who asked the pope for prayers. “I ask you to pray for me,” Rouhani said.

The Vatican meeting was a key part of the Iranian effort to take a more prominent place on the world stage after the nuclear deal with Western powers.

Iran, which agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for an end to economic sanctions, is eager to carve out a bigger role in mediating Middle East conflicts. Francis’ papacy has emphasized mediation and conflict-resolution, including his role in helping Cuba and the United States to normalize their relations.

Rouhani heads to France Wednesday on his four-day European trip seeking to boost Iran’s image abroad as well as to rehabilitate economic ties with a continent that had been a big trade partner before the sanctions.

Francis gave Rouhani a medal depicting St. Martin giving his cloak to a poor man in the cold, describing the saint’s act as “a sign of unsolicited brotherhood.”

Rouhani brought a gift of a hand-made rug that he said was made in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

Before going to the Vatican, Rouhani told a forum of business leaders in Rome that “Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region.”

Italy also sees Iran as a potential peacemaker in Syria’s civil war, as the Italian government fears the warfare will further destabilize Libya — just across the Mediterranean from southern Italy — fuel terrorism and jeopardize energy security.

“Italy has always backed the role of Iran as a regional player in resolving tensions in the area, starting with the Syrian crisis,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said after meeting his Iranian counterpart, according to his office.

Rouhani has described the political talks leading to the nuclear deal as a potential blueprint for pursuing peace in the Middle East.

His European trip was originally planned for November but postponed because of the attacks in Paris.

Business: Chinese stocks fall again, other Asian markets rise

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BEIJING (AP) — Chinese stocks sank again Wednesday while other Asian markets rose and Europe retreated as investors looked ahead to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s latest statement on interest rates and the economic outlook.

KEEPING SCORE: In early trading, France’s CAC-40 shed 0.5 percent to 4,336.04 and Germany’s DAX lost 0.6 percent to 9,760.41. Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.4 percent to 5,885.47. Wall Street look set to reverse Monday’s gains. Dow futures were off 0.7 percent at 15,960.00 and S&P 500 futures dropped 0.8 percent to 1,880.70.

FED PLANS: Investors were watching Wednesday’s Fed statement for signs of the pace of possible future rate hikes. The U.S. central bank raised rates last month for the first time since the 2008 global crisis, citing improved inflation and other data. But the strength of the dollar, low oil prices and jitters over China’s outlook have prompted warnings against raising rates too fast.

ANALYST’S QUOTE: Fed officials will probably want to acknowledge the uncertainty raised by financial and international developments, said Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics in a report. “But they will likely also want to avoid encouraging the perception that a relatively modest bout of risk aversion in markets or mixed signals from the data will promptly change their outlook in a major way.”

ASIA’S DAY: The Shanghai Composite Index fell 4 percent by midday before recovering to end down 0.5 percent at 2,735.56, adding to Tuesday’s 6.4 percent loss. The Chinese benchmark has given up almost all gains made since December 2014. Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 2.7 percent to 17,163.92 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was up 1 percent at 19,052.45. South Korea’s Kospi gained 1.4 percent to 1,897.87 and India’s Sensex advanced 0.2 percent to 24,544.05. Markets in Taiwan and Southeast Asia also gained. Australia’s S&P/ ASX 200 lost 1.2 percent to 4,946.40.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude shed 80 cents to $30.65 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract soared $1.11 on Tuesday to close at $31.45. Brent crude, the benchmark for international oils, fell 68 cents to $31.12 per barrel in London. It jumped $1.30 on Tuesday to $31.80.

CURRENCIES: The dollar weakened to 118.15 yen from Tuesday’s 118.31 yen. The euro fell to $1.0857 from $1.0864.

 

Entertainment: Abe Vigoda dies at 94

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(PhatzNewsRoom / LA Times)   —-     Abe Vigoda, best known for portraying a gangster in “The Godfather” films and the glum Det. Fish on TV’s “Barney Miller,” died Tuesday at his daughter’s home in Woodland Park, N.J. He was 94.

Vigoda’s daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, said he died in his sleep of natural causes.

A veteran of New York theater, Vigoda was about 50 when he was cast in his first U.S. film, “The Godfather.” Director Francis Ford Coppola chose him from 500 other actors during an open casting call.

Vigoda played Sal Tessio, an old friend of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) who hopes to take over the family after Vito’s death by killing his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). The great success of the film — it won the best picture Oscar in 1973 — and “The Godfather Part II” made his face and voice, if not his name, recognizable to the general public and led to numerous subsequent roles.

“I’m really not a Mafia person,” Vigoda told Vanity Fair in 2009. “But Francis said, ‘I want to look at the Mafia not as thugs and gangsters but like royalty in Rome.’ And he saw something in me that fit Tessio as one would look at the classics in Rome.”

For the part, he essentially “became an Italian,” Vigoda, who was Jewish, recalled in 1997.

But it was his comic turn in “Barney Miller,” which starred Hal Linden and ran from 1975 to 1982, that brought Vigoda’s greatest recognition.

The show featured Linden as captain of a motley precinct crew. Vigoda played the cranky detective whose every breath sounded like it could be his last. With his deadpan delivery, he was “the hit of the show,” according to “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows.”

He received three consecutive Emmy nominations for the role and starred in a spin-off, “Fish,” that aired in 1977 and 1978. For several months, he appeared in both shows.

Vigoda remained a popular character actor in films in his later years, including “Cannonball Run II,” “Look Who’s Talking,” “Joe Versus the Volcano” and “North.”

Offstage he was an active athlete who regularly jogged and played handball, a sport he still pursued in his late 80s.

His resemblance to Boris Karloff led to his casting in the 1986 New York revival of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” playing the role Karloff originated on the stage in the 1940s. (The murderous character in the black comedy is famously said by other characters to resemble Boris Karloff, a great joke back when the real Karloff was playing him.)

Abraham Charles Vigodah was born Feb. 24, 1921, in New York City, to Samuel and Lena Vigodah, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor. A brother, Bill, was a comic-book artist, mainly for the Archie enterprise.

After making his stage debut at 17, Vigoda regularly appeared in New York productions and dozens of touring shows. His Broadway credits include the late 1960s’ “The Man in the Glass Booth” and 1970’s “Inquest.”

In total, he acted in about 25 films and 75 television shows. Often, he was typecast as a Mafia figure or a policeman.

He was a mob boss in Wesley Snipes’ “Sugar Hill” (1993) and perhaps the world’s oldest fast-food worker in the 1997 comedy “Good Burger.”

Vigoda also appeared with actress Betty White when both were in their late 80s in a commercial for Snickers that debuted during the 2010 Super Bowl. Their advanced ages were a point of the punch line.

In the 1989 hit film “Look Who’s Talking,” Vigoda was 68 when he played John Travolta’s 100-year-old grandfather. It was just the kind of wizened role that even decades later could help foster Internet skirmishes over whether Vigoda was alive or dead — he was erroneously reported to have died in 1982.

Reflecting on his delayed success, Vigoda once remarked: “When I was a young man, I was told success had to come in my youth. I found this to be a myth. My experiences have taught me that if you deeply believe in what you are doing, success can come at any age.”

He was married twice, most recently to Beatrice Schy, whom he married in 1968 and who died in 1992. He had his daughter with his first wife, Sonja Gohlke, who has also died. Vigoda is survived by his daughter, grandchildren Jamie, Paul and Steven, and a great-grandson.

Analysis: Opening a New Front Against ISIS in Libya

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(PhatzNewsRoom / OP-Ed NYT)    —-    The Pentagon is ramping up intelligence-gathering in Libya as the Obama administration draws up plans to open a third front in the war against the Islamic State. This significant escalation is being planned without a meaningful debate in Congress about the merits and risks of a military campaign that is expected to include airstrikes and raids by elite American troops.

That is deeply troubling. A new military intervention in Libya would represent a significant progression of a war that could easily spread to other countries on the continent. It is being planned as the American military burrows more deeply into battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq, where American ground troops are being asked to play an increasingly hands-on role in the fight.

Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday that military officials were “looking to take decisive military action” against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Libya, where Western officials estimate the terrorist group has roughly 3,000 fighters.

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Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Administration officials say the campaign in Libya could begin in a matter of weeks. They anticipate it would be conducted with the help of a handful of European allies, including Britain, France and Italy. The planning is unfolding amid political chaos in Libya, which continues to reel from the aftermath of the 2011 civil war that ended with the killing of the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. In recent months the United Nations has struggled to persuade two groups of Libyan officials who claim to be the country’s rightful leaders to band together. On Monday, the parliament that is recognized by the international community rejected a unity government proposal brokered by the United Nations.

The political strife and infighting among rival militias created an opening for the Islamic State in Libya in 2014. The extremist group now controls the coastal city of Surt, which lies between the country’s two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. General Dunford told reporters that striking the cells of Islamic State fighters in Libya would “put a firewall” between that front and sympathizers of the group elsewhere in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

That is a reasonable goal. But military officials have yet to make a persuasive case that it is achievable. Even if the Pentagon and its allies were to manage to strike Islamic State targets successfully, it remains uncertain that they would have a reliable ground force to hold the terrain. There’s good reason to believe that airstrikes would create the temptation to deploy ground troops to gather intelligence and provide technical support to rebel forces as they have in Iraq and Syria.

On the same day General Dunford discussed the plans for Libya, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the Pentagon was redoubling efforts to assist local forces in Iraq and Syria. “We’re looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground — I want to be clear about that — but it’s a strategic question, whether you are enabling local forces to take and hold, rather than trying to substitute for them,” he told CNBC in an interview.

There seems to be little interest in Congress to authorize the campaign against the Islamic State, which is predicated, preposterously, on the 2001 law passed to take action against the culprits of the Sept. 11 attacks. The prospect of a new front in the war should spur lawmakers to revisit the issue.

The White House has said it would be nice, but not necessary, for Congress to pass a new authorization for the use of military force. That stance has allowed Congress — which has primary responsibility under the Constitution to declare war — to sidestep an important war vote.

Talks ahead, UN humanitarians plead on behalf of Syrians

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GENEVA (AP) — U.N. humanitarian leaders are pleading with the warring parties in Syria to stop bombing schools, to allow aid workers access to the sick and to overcome a “political failure” to end an intractable conflict.

Leaders from several U.N. agencies including the World Health Organization and UNICEF on Tuesday described a worsening situation for health care and children as the U.N. special envoy for Syria prepares to host peace talks in Geneva among government and opposition leaders, for the first time in nearly two years.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria Yacoub El Hillo said “the suffering is immense” and said the message for envoys attending is: “Enough is enough.”

A day earlier, U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced plans to hold peace talks involving multiple parties starting Friday.

______

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —-   GENEVA — The United Nations announced on Monday that it would aim to start Syria peace talks on Friday, as Syrian military forces, aided by Russian air power, made new gains on the battlefield, suggesting that even these still precarious diplomatic negotiations would bring little respite in the fighting for the next several months.

The United Nations envoy here, Staffan de Mistura, in his announcement of the postponed start date, declined to say who would be invited to represent the opposition — a major sticking point — or mention what would happen to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the lightning rod of the conflict.

Speaking on the day the talks were intended to start, he told reporters that he would only send invitations on Tuesday, and shuttle among various groups of Syrian representatives until they can agree to meet face to face. That could go on, in a staggered fashion, for six months.

Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, urged both sides to go to Geneva with an intention to negotiate in good faith. “If they’re not serious, war will continue,” he said Monday during a visit to Laos, promising to continue his conversations about the negotiations with his Russian and Saudi counterparts.

“You can lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink,” he added. “You’ve got to give people an opportunity here to sit down and negotiate.”

The talks would come after months of effort, led by the United States and Russia, to end a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and scattered more than four million refugees across the region over nearly five years. It follows the adoption of a Security Council resolution in mid-December that aimed to bring the warring parties to the table, with the goal of agreeing to a national cease-fire, with a transitional governing body within six months and elections in 18 months.

The diplomatic developments come as Russian forces appear to be expanding their campaigns on the ground. Mr. Assad’s military, with Russian support, made significant strides in recent days, regaining control of a significant chunk of the rural coast around Latakia, a government stronghold.

Shadi, an activist in the region who spoke on the condition he not be fully identified, said the government had seized about 30 villages in Latakia’s northern countryside in the past few days. The insurgents still held two villages, al-Biyadiyeh and Oubin, where thousands of residents who had fled from other places — many of them affiliated with the Free Syrian Army — had taken shelter.

Shadi said the insurgents “are not fighting in an organized way,” and would “continue fighting until they die,” adding that the group included Turkmen who “were expecting support from Turkey, but it never arrived.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday that 23 people, including four commanders and 15 other fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham rebel movement, were killed by a suicide bomber in Aleppo. Abed, a fighter from the movement, said the bomber might have been from the Islamic State, but, referring to government forces, added, “The regime targets the area from time to time.”

The peace talks, the first in two years, have been stalled largely over the question of who would attend on behalf of the opposition.

Saudi Arabia has assembled a coalition of disparate opposition groups into a High Negotiations Committee, which said it would meet Tuesday in Riyadh to discuss its participation. Russia has called for a separate opposition delegation, but the opposition and its backers see the groups it supports as too close to the Syrian government and designed to fracture the rebel bloc.

Complicating matters, Turkey has said it will pull its support for the talks if the opposition bench includes a representative of a Syrian Kurdish group.

For the moment, Mr. de Mistura said two groups were certain to be excluded: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Russia wants to see that outlawed list expanded, something Saudi Arabia is expected to reject.

The Security Council resolution deems Mr. de Mistura the arbiter of who is invited to the Geneva talks, and he has said in recent days that he would not issue invitations until he was sure who would come.

On Monday, asked repeatedly whether one or more opposition delegations would be invited, Mr. de Mistura demurred. He said he would not divulge what he called “organizational details” but suggested that he would seek to have an opposition “as inclusive as possible,” and include representatives of women’s groups and civil society to serve as “advisers.”

”You could have quite a lot of simultaneous meetings taking place,” he said.

Diplomats say the first test of the government’s commitment to the talks will be in whether it lifts the sieges on rebel-controlled towns and lets in humanitarian aid. On Tuesday, United Nations officials plan to hold a news conference here to drive home the urgency of getting food and medicine to 400,000 Syrians living in such areas. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations has pointedly held the government principally responsible, calling it a war crime to use starvation as a weapon of war.

Mr. de Mistura said the goal of the talks remained a national cease-fire. In a bid to mollify an anxious opposition bloc, he said the framework for any negotiations would be a road map laid out in 2012, called the Geneva Communique, which envisions a transitional governing body with full executive powers.

The United States has backed away, bit by bit, from the demand that Mr. Assad leave office immediately, but has remained committed to the 2012 Geneva Communique.

The Security Council resolution envisions the establishment of a transitional government in six months. But it deliberately avoids the question of Mr. Assad’s future, including whether he would be allowed to run in the prescribed 2018 elections. That ambiguity has led to another round of anger among many in the opposition.

Mr. Kerry insisted in his public statement on Monday that the White House did not think there could be peace in Syria with Mr. Assad at the helm, but also said, “It’s up to the Syrians to decide what happens to Assad.”

That echoes the longstanding Russian position, and it exacerbates the anxieties of the opposition, who say they want an agreement to lift the sieges on key rebel-held towns and the release of prisoners before they come here. Over the weekend, opposition representatives who met with Mr. Kerry behind closed doors in Riyadh expressed new doubts about Washington’s commitment to ending Mr. Assad’s reign.

Mohammed Alloush of the High Negotiations Committee said Mr. Kerry urged the opposition to come here without any conditions. “That was his message: Don’t put preconditions,” Mr. Alloush said in an interview. “We were listening. We got annoyed. Personally I wasn’t surprised.”

Mr. Alloush is part of the Army of Islam, a large Islamist faction operating mainly in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, whose leader — Mr. Alloush’s cousin — was killed in a December airstrike.

The United Nations’ six-month framework is apparently designed to send a message to both sides about investing in negotiations and not just grandstanding. But it also underscores the fact that no party expects results soon.

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UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura informs the media on the Intra-Syrian Talks, during a press conference, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

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