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How Oregon Ranchers Unwittingly Sparked An Armed Standoff

By Alexandra Zavis, Nigel Duara and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BURNS, Ore. — Those who know 73-year-old Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, will tell you that the hot-tempered ranchers can sometimes be their own worst enemies.

But when the men were sentenced to additional prison time for setting two fires that spread to federal lands, many in this remote and rugged corner of eastern Oregon saw it as the federal government wielding too much power.

The ranchers have now become the unwitting inspiration for a self-proclaimed militia that has seized parts of a national wildlife refuge near here, declaring they will stand there until citizens like the Hammonds can manage their own land and die outside of prison.

It’s an honor that sits uneasily with the Hammond family and a number of their neighbors, who have sought to distance themselves from the armed takeover. Signs have gone up around town: “Bundy militia go home” and “No Bundy caliphate,” references to Ryan and Ammon Bundy, the brothers from Utah and Idaho who appear to be leading the band of protesters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

As ordered by a federal judge, the Hammonds pulled up to the Terminal Island federal correctional facility in Los Angeles on Monday in a sport utility vehicle and were escorted inside to complete their five-year sentences for arson. Karyn Gallen, a niece of Dwight Hammond who was on hand for the surrender, said the family appreciated the showing of support in Oregon. On the other hand, she said, “it has always been a request of the family that things be peaceful.”

The men’s repeated run-ins with the law have made them a potent rallying symbol in a generations-old struggle between local landowners and federal authorities over how to manage the once-wild Western range.

In economically struggling Harney County, about three-quarters of the land is publicly owned. Ranchers like the Hammonds, whose 10,000-acre spread is checkerboarded with land belonging to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, depend on grazing leases from the federal government. But they face pressure from environmentalists who argue that livestock grazing and other extractive industries imperil wildlife habitats.

Friends and supporters of the Hammonds, who hail from a long line of Oregon ranchers, argue that their attempts to buck federal authorities are the product of a deep commitment to the community in which they live and the land that sustains it.

The Hammonds say they set the two fires in 2001 and 2006 to ward off invasive plant species and protect their property from a wildfire.

Federal prosecutors agreed that Steven Hammond, 46, started the 2006 fire as a defensive measure to prevent a blaze caused by a lightning storm from destroying the winter feed for the family’s cattle. But they argued that his actions violated a burn ban that had been in effect and endangered firefighters who were battling the wildfire.

Prosecutors contended that the 2001 fire, which spread to nearly 140 acres of government land, was set to cover up evidence of an illegal deer hunt.

Steven Hammond insisted he called an emergency dispatcher before setting the 2001 fire to make sure there was no burn ban in effect that day. But prosecutors said the call wasn’t made until two hours after the fire was set.

It was not the first time that the Hammonds tangled with federal authorities about setting fires too close to public land. The original indictment listed several other alleged incidents dating to 1982, and said in some cases the Hammonds had obstructed efforts to fight the fires.

After a two-week trial in 2012, the two men served their time — three months for Dwight and a year for Steven — and family members said they assumed that would be the end of the matter.

Instead, the government appealed the sentences, arguing that they did not meet the legally required minimum of five years. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan had ruled at their original sentencing that such a term would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore unconstitutional.

“It would be a sentence which would shock the conscience,” Hogan said.

But a federal appeals court agreed with the government and the men were resentenced to five years. Their last hope is an appeal for clemency from President Barack Obama.

Gallen said the circumstances now facing her family were “unfathomable.”

“We are talking about 140 acres with no lives lost,” she said.

Because of the criminal convictions, the Bureau of Land Management did not renew the family’s grazing permits last year, and family members say it will be difficult to keep the ranch going.

What has also riled friends and supporters is that the ranchers were prosecuted under a 1996 law intended to punish domestic terrorists.

Sam Glerup, who owns a tow-truck business in Burns, acknowledged that the Hammonds are “no golden boys,” but said “they’re no terrorists,” either.

“The older one (Dwight), he’ll be dead before he ever sees the outside of a prison,” Glerup said.

Anti-government activists rolled into town over the weekend to show support for the aging rancher and his son.

“We’re trying to accomplish the task of restoring rights to the people who have lost them or surrendered them,” Ryan Bundy told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

Environmentalists, however, argue that what the protesters consider tyrannical treatment by the government is in fact a generous welfare program.

“There is enormous subsidization of public lands livestock grazing,” the Western Watersheds Project said in a statement Monday. “While the going rate for grazing a cow and a calf on private land for a month in Oregon is $17, the equivalent fee on federal public lands is only $1.69 … hardly a sign that the federal agencies are trying to put ranchers out of business.”

The Malheur wildlife refuge, one of the country’s premier bird sanctuaries, is actually open to livestock grazing, according to the group.

“Thousands of Americans visit the refuge each year to enjoy the unique species that frequent the Pacific flyway, pouring over $1.9 million into the local economy annually,” it said. “When Ammon Bundy promotes his agenda of using the resource, he’s overlooking the many Americans who ‘use the resource’ to enjoy quiet recreation like bird-watching.”

(Zavis reported from Los Angeles, Duara from Burns and Winton from Los Angeles.)

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Oregon and other Western states have a long history of loose laws revolving around ownership of land. SFWS – Pacific Region via Flickr

 

2 Islamic State Operatives With Ties To Paris Attackers Reported Killed In Airstrikes

By Alexandra Zavis and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — U.S.-led forces have killed two Islamic State operatives in Syria and Iraq believed to have links to the gunmen who killed 130 people in Paris last month, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday.

The suspects, identified as Charaffe Mouadan and Abdul Qader Hakim, were among 10 Islamic State figures reported killed in targeted airstrikes over the last month.

Mouadan had been in direct contact with the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national of Moroccan descent, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said in a news briefing from Baghdad.

He was “actively planning additional attacks against the West” and was killed in an airstrike over Syria on Thursday, Warren told reporters.

French news reports, citing unidentified law enforcement officials, identified Mouadan as a French national of Moroccan descent who grew up in the Paris suburbs and was 26 or 27 years old.

He had been arrested in October 2012 with two friends, including Samy Amimour, one of the gunmen who took part in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. At the time, the trio was believed to be plotting to travel to Yemen or Afghanistan to take part in violent jihad, according to the French newspaper Le Parisien.

A French counterterrorism official told Agence France-Presse news agency that Mouadan was not known to have strong ties to Abaaoud, who was killed in a police raid on an apartment on the northern outskirts of Paris five days after the attacks.

Hakim, a veteran fighter and forgery specialist, was also part of an Islamic State external operations group that enables attacks against the West, according to the Pentagon.

He had links to the Paris attack network and was killed Saturday in an airstrike on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Warren said.

Other Islamic State operatives killed in the last month include finance and explosives experts, an executioner and a British-trained Bangladeshi hacker with expertise in evading electronic surveillance, Warren said.

None of these strikes is expected to deliver a knockout blow to Islamic State, according to another U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments. But officials contend that the cumulative effect of killing individuals in the group’s middle and upper management could be significant in the long term.

Warren said recent battlefield successes, including the expulsion Monday of Islamic State fighters from a key government complex in the Iraqi city in Ramadi, were in part attributable “to the fact that this organization is losing its leadership.”

“There’s much more fighting to do,” he said. “But our ability to dismantle the facilitation networks, our ability to dismantle their ground command and control, our ability to take away some of their enforcers … that eats away at their ability to instill fear in the population they control, it eats away at their ability to extort money from the population, which of course, reduces their funding.”

Islamic State is proving harder to degrade than its precursor and rival, al-Qaida, in part because the extremist group has a more diffuse command structure.

Eliminating an external operations figure in the al-Qaida network was a “big deal,” according to the U.S. official, because only a few individuals have the authority to plan and launch attacks against Western targets.

Islamic State gives greater autonomy to its members, and more of them are using their connections in Europe and other countries to inspire and plan attacks, the official said. That reduces the impact of the loss of any single individual.

The official noted that it was no surprise that a forger was among those targeted in the last month.

When Islamic State captured towns in Syria, the official said, the militants gained control of passport and identity card-making supplies as well as bank machinery that has allowed them to forge travel documents and financial statements to help members travel under aliases.

Questions have been raised about the validity of a Syrian passport found with the body of one of the Paris attacks who blew himself up outside a soccer stadium. He is believed to have posed as a refugee in order to travel from Syria to Europe to take part in the Nov. 13 assault, which also included attacks on cafes, restaurants and a packed concert hall.

Officials in France and Belgium, where most if not all of the attackers were from, have warned that more plots were believed to be in the works.

On Tuesday, the federal prosecutor’s office in Belgium announced that two people had been arrested on suspicion of planning attacks in Brussels during the holidays.

The arrests followed searches on Sunday and Monday in the Brussels and Liege regions, as well as Flemish Brabant, that uncovered military-style training uniforms and propaganda materials from Islamic State. No weapons or explosives were found, the prosecutor’s office said.

©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Belgian soldiers patrol Brussels’ Grand Place during a continued high level of security following the deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

 

Capture Of Ramadi Complex Could Mark Strategic Victory Over Islamic State, But Will It Hold?

By Alexandra Zavis and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

CAIRO — The Iraqi military said Monday that its forces have recaptured the main government complex in Ramadi from Islamic State fighters who have occupied the city since May, providing a strategic victory and a morale boost to the country’s struggling security forces.

Anti-terrorism troops hoisted the national flag atop the key complex in the long-contested Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, Iraqi joint operations spokesman, said in a televised statement.

Rasool claimed that Ramadi had been fully liberated. However, Maj. Gen. Ismail Mahalawi, head of operations in Iraq’s western Anbar province, later told reporters that the militants still controlled parts of the city. Fighting was reported in downtown Ramadi as well as in some communities on the city’s eastern and northern outskirts.

The recapture of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital and its most populous city, would be the most significant in a series of recent successes by the Iraqi forces, which collapsed in the face of rapid Islamic State advances in mid-2014. Since the spring, the militants have been driven from the northern cities of Tikrit and Beiji, as well as Sinjar, a northwestern town near the Syrian border.

But defense experts caution that it is too soon to speak of a turning point in the struggle against Islamic State. The group still controls large stretches of Iraq and neighboring Syria, including most of the rest of Anbar and the large, densely populated city of Mosul in the north of Iraq.

“It’s a good tactical victory,” said Ben Connable, a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer who served three tours in Iraq before joining the Rand Corp., a think tank. “But really, we are just back to where we were six months ago. So to paint this as a strategic victory against Islamic State I think is a gross exaggeration.”

The seizure of the government compound in Ramadi followed a week of intense fighting as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s forces pressed into the center of the heavily defended city after seizing ground on the periphery.

All the bridges leading into Ramadi had been destroyed before the advance began, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Barriers had been erected in every street and the ground seeded with explosives. There were also sniper nests and mortar batteries to contend with, they said.

“The clearance of the government center is a significant accomplishment and is the result of many months of hard work,” Col. Steven Warren, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in a statement.

He said the U.S-led coalition, which includes major European and Middle Eastern powers, had carried out more than 630 airstrikes in the area, provided training and advice to Iraqi units, and contributed specialized equipment to clear explosives.

Iraqi state television broadcast footage of Iraqi troops celebrating inside the government compound Monday. Some could be seen slaughtering a sheep, while others raised their weapons and danced.

“Now will be a process of going block by block … clearing out booby traps and clearing out small pockets of resistance,” Warren told the Los Angeles Times. “That could take time. Ramadi is a fairly large, densely populated center. Every house is a potential bomb.”

The city could provide an important base of operations for Iraqi forces as they attempt to recapture other parts of the fertile Euphrates River valley, which stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Syrian border, and press north toward Mosul.

However, U.S. defense officials said Monday’s victory was as important symbolically and politically as it was militarily.

“The fight for Ramadi demonstrates how capable, motivated local forces backed by coalition air support and training can defeat ISIL,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “Now it’s important for the Iraqi government, working with provincial and local authorities, to seize this opportunity to maintain the peace in Ramadi, prevent the return of ISIL and other extremists, and facilitate the return of Ramadi’s citizens back to the city.”

The United States and the coalition have pledged over $50 million to a United Nations Development Program fund to support efforts to rebuild and stabilize areas seized from Islamic State, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement.

Part of Islamic State’s strength has been its ability to recruit foreign fighters who are eager to join the group’s self-declared caliphate. That may be harder to do when the caliphate is contracting rather than expanding, according to Stephen D. Biddle, a defense policy expert at George Washington University.

“This isn’t the first time they have lost real estate, but it’s the first time they have lost a major city,” Biddle said.

(Hassan, in Cairo, is a special correspondent. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A member of the Iraqi security forces holds an Iraqi flag at a government complex in the city of Ramadi, December 28, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

 

Climate Talks: Slimmed-Down Draft Proposal Still Leaves Major Issues Unresolved

By Alexandra Zavis and Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LE BOURGET, France — With time running out to meet a self-imposed deadline, negotiators Wednesday released a new draft agreement on fighting climate change that was slimmer than earlier versions while still leaving major issues unresolved.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is leading the United Nations talks outside Paris, said progress had been made in the last few days but cautioned that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Since the weekend, the draft has been whittled down from about 50 pages to 29. But it still contains significant amounts of disputed text, along with lists of options for settling areas of contention before the two-week conference is scheduled to wrap up Friday.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry urged participants not to leave Paris without an “ambitious, inclusive and durable global climate agreement.”

“If we just continue down the current path, with too many people sitting on their hands, waiting for someone else to take the responsibility, guess what, the damage is going to increase exponentially,” Kerry said in a speech at the conference. “To cut to the chase: Unless the global community takes bold steps now to transition away from a high-carbon economy, we are facing unthinkable harm to our habitat, our infrastructure, our food production, our water supplies, and potentially to life itself.”

Christiana Figueres, the top United Nations climate official, said the negotiations had provided a “crystallization of political points that still need a lot of work.”

These include how ambitious the accord should be, how to address the cost of fighting climate change and how to define the obligations of countries in different stages of development.

Among the key issues left unsettled is whether the goal of the agreement should be to keep the average global temperature rise this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as advocated by some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

The draft also does not resolve the question of compensation by nations that got rich using fossil fuels to poor countries now suffering the effects of global warming, including rising sea levels, prolonged drought and extreme storms. Nor does it settle on a mechanism to review the pledges made by countries and verify that they are living up to their commitments.

A total of 186 countries, accounting for more than 95 percent of global emissions, have submitted plans outlining how they intend to reduce their output. But their proposals are not projected to achieve the target of 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold at which scientists believe most of the worst effects of climate change could be avoided. That is one of the main reasons that environmental groups are pressing negotiators to agree to review their targets before a previous agreement expires in 2020.

Many would also like to see a firm commitment in the agreement to phase out the use of coal, oil and other fossil fuels by 2050.

“Right now this draft deal contains wishy-washy language instead of setting a tight deadline of 2050,” said Kaisa Kosonen, a climate policy advisor at Greenpeace. “Without a date, it won’t have weight.”

Recognizing that rising global temperatures already pose “an existential threat” to some countries, Kerry said the United States would in the next five years double the grants it provides to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate change, currently worth more than $400 million a year.

The funds are an attempt to make good on a promise by wealthy nations to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations cope with the effects of global warming and transition their economies to cleaner energy sources. But Kerry said developing countries also would need to play their part.

“Make no mistake: If a global community cannot come together and refuses to rise to this challenge — if we continue to allow calculated obstruction to derail the urgency of this moment — we will be liable for a collective moral failure of historic consequence,” Kerry said. “That’s why we need to act within the next 36 to 48 hours. We need to get the job done.”

(Zavis reported from Paris and Megerian from Le Bourget.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, President-designate of COP21, (L) tests a microphone during a visit of a conference room on the site of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) in Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

 

Migrants Or Refugees? It’s A Crucial Distinction

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The sight of Germans and Austrians cheering the arrival of train loads of weary asylum seekers has been a source of inspiration to the desperate tide pouring into Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

However, the fate of thousands hinges not only on the level of public sympathy for their plight, but on what is driving them to leave their homelands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads the European Union’s wealthiest state, contends that there is a moral obligation to provide protection to those fleeing war and persecution. Her country has thrown open its doors, saying it expects to welcome as many as 800,000 refugees this year.

Poorer eastern nations, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, have been far more resistant to taking on a share of the burden of providing for the impoverished throngs. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, contends that the “overwhelming majority” are economic migrants and not refugees.

The distinction is crucial.

A cornerstone of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol is the principle of non-refoulement, according to which refugees should not be returned to countries where there is a serious threat to their lives or freedom. Refugees are also entitled to asylum under EU law, a right not ascribed to migrants.

What is the difference between refugees and migrants?

Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their countries because of the threat of persecution or armed conflict, and because they have no protection from authorities at home.

Migrants may leave for any number of reasons, including to find work, get an education and better themselves. The term can be applied to refugees, but not all migrants qualify as refugees.

So which is it?

The vast majority of those risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats and inflatable dinghies — more than 381,000 this year — come from conflict zones, according to figures compiled by the United Nations refugee agency.

About half come from Syria, whose citizens almost always qualify for protection in EU states because of the civil war that has laid waste to large parts of the country. Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan account for nearly 30 percent.

“This is a primarily refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement early this month.

Who else is seeking asylum?

Many Nigerians, Gambians and Bangladeshis are also using dangerous sea routes to reach Europe, but often fail to obtain protection when they arrive, according to the U.N.

Some EU nations also get large numbers of migrants traveling overland from Balkan countries such as Albania, Kosovo and Serbia.

Germany’s leaders have been far less sympathetic to these people, most of whom they say are seeking asylum because of a shortage of legal avenues to escape dire economic circumstances at home.

“We will protect those who should be protected,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin on Monday. But she said that those coming out of economic need will be swiftly returned home.

Photo: A Syrian refugee holds her daughter while waiting for buses after disembarking a passenger ship at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, September 14, 2015. (REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis)

Saudi Brigadier General Discusses Arab Coalition’s Fight In Yemen

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Every evening since a mostly Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen, journalists have been invited into an air base in the Saudi capital for a briefing on the day’s battlefield developments.

The made-for-TV event features models of Saudi military hardware and grainy cockpit video of missiles hitting military bases and ammunition stockpiles held by the Iranian-allied rebels known as Houthis and troops still loyal to Yemen’s deposed strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Despite nearly two weeks of airstrikes, fierce clashes persist between these insurgents and forces loyal to the country’s exiled president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, fueling speculation that the coalition may decide to send in ground forces.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, who presides over the nightly news conferences, has said that the coalition’s priority is the security of the Yemeni people and neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen. The Los Angeles Times sat down with Asiri after a recent briefing to ask him what the coalition plans to do next.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: We are now nearly two weeks into the air campaign in Yemen, and the Houthi militias show no sign of abandoning their advance across the country. How much longer do you expect the campaign to continue and under what conditions would you consider sending in ground troops?

Answer: We knew before we started the campaign that we will have a very hard task. When you address a regular army, you know where are its logistics, where are its units, where are its command and control (centers). But you cannot attack a hotel because in its basement there are munitions or there is a communications center.

The Americans, they spent 11 years in Afghanistan, plus NATO, plus all the supporters. At the end of the day they left, and the Taliban is still working in Afghanistan. So we have very clear objectives. The first is to support the legitimate government when they asked for help. Second, to make sure that those militias do not have capabilities to harm the population. The third objective is that the neighbors of Yemen, the borders, will be safe.

We (accept) as a country to have a neighbor with a very strong regular army. But we do not accept to have militias using Scud missiles and having fighter jets, and having cannons, artillery. They are not a state.
Tomorrow when one of those fighter jets flies from (Yemen’s capital) Sana toward a country and hits a building, what are we going to say? This is why Saudi Arabia and those countries joined the coalition, to make sure that threat will be addressed.

Q. Is it possible to achieve your security objectives solely through military action?

A. Military action is a part of the political process. The choice to go to war is not an easy choice, but sometimes it’s important to make sure that your opponent understands what you are trying to do. The armies, they are created for this, to set the conditions, to help the political part of the process. But who refused to talk? It was the (Houthi) militias and their allies.

The militias are a group that try to implement their agenda by force. When we ask them, do not go to Sana, they go to Sana. We ask them, do not dismantle the government, they do it. They put the legitimate president in jail. When he left Sana, they used fighter jets and they bombarded his house. We cannot accept this in the 21st century.

Q. How much longer can the campaign go on?

A. We are working in Aden to make it safe, so the government can get back to work. Once they are able to run the country, there is no more threat coming from those militias, I think it’s done.

(The conversation shifts to the role of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival.)

In Lebanon, they create militias. In Syria, they help (President Bashar Assad) to kill the Syrians. In Iraq, they create militias. In Yemen, they create (militias). You remember, once the (Houthis) got control of Sana, they signed a contract with an Iranian airline, 14 flights a week. To do what? We did not know that there was tourism coming from Yemen to Iran or from Iran to Yemen. They bring a lot of armaments, of explosives, of missiles.

Q. Iran denies this. What evidence have you seen that Iran is sending large quantities of weapons to support the Houthis in Yemen?

A. The Yemeni government, they showed for all the media a ship with Iranian weapons. We have Saudi intelligence.

These are the militias, not the army. If the army does this, this is their right. But militias creating a ballistic missile site, bringing artillery? You know, before we started two weeks ago, they were doing a military exercise, a big military exercise. Do you think any country can accept that a militia has an exercise at their border?

Q. There are people in Yemen who are against the Houthi militias, but who say they can’t support a president who brings foreign troops into their country. Are you worried that you might be turning the population against President Hadi?

A. Even in democratic countries, you can never have 100 percent (support). Always people are divided according to their interests. But they elected Mansour Hadi, so we should respect the majority choice. Mansour has the responsibility to protect Yemen and the population against these militias, and he called for help. History will show the Yemenis that when they were hijacked by the militias, their brother Arab countries for once said no, we will go and help Yemen to get out of this situation.

The States joined the first and second world wars, not because they asked the European population for their opinion, but because they found out that the international order and the national security of the states and their allies was in danger.

Q. Al-Qaida, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, appears to be taking advantage of the situation to seize more territory in Yemen. Is the coalition willing to intervene against their forces as well?

A. Al-Qaida is operating in this area since a long time. Unfortunately, the international community didn’t help to get those terrorists out even when we are sure that most of the operations conducted by al-Qaida are coming from Yemen. The dismantlement of the government by the Houthis made the government very weak against al-Qaida. So if we create a very strong Yemeni government, they can address this kind of challenge.

Q. So you aren’t considering helping them with that objective?

A. We are examining the situation, but for the time being we are focusing on our objectives.

Q. What do you say to those who see this as a sectarian fight?

A. It is easy to make this kind of (claim against) the Saudis or the coalition. But no one in all these years can give us any evidence that we created a militia in other countries. More than $10 billion of our aid went to Yemen. We never said this is for Sunnis. We gave it to the government. Who created the situation of sectarianism? The Iranians. They created the militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah; they created the militias in Iraq. They are using this leverage to promote an ideology which they have. So I think it is a very weak argument that the Iranians use, actually.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri of the Saudi led coalition. Screenshot via YouTube

At Least 60 Journalists Killed In 2014, Almost Half In The Middle East

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

At least 60 journalists around the world were killed on the job in 2014, including an unusually high proportion of international correspondents, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in its annual report Tuesday.

The last three years have been the deadliest for journalists since the New York-based watchdog group started compiling records in 1992.

This year’s toll marked a drop from 2013, when at least 70 journalists were killed. CPJ is investigating 18 more deaths 2014 to determine if they were work-related.

Almost half of those killed this year died in the Middle East, and nearly 40 percent were deliberately targeted, the group reported.

Once again, local journalists made up the majority of those killed. But with Westerners often deliberately targeted in conflict zones, nearly a quarter of the deaths were members of the international media, CPJ said. That is about double the proportion that the group has documented in recent years.

They included James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American freelance journalists kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic State militants while covering the conflict in Syria, as well as German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was shot by an Afghan police officer while covering elections in Afghanistan for the Associated Press.

Foley and Sotloff were among at least 17 journalists killed in Syria this year, making it the deadliest country for media workers for the third year in a row. CPJ has confirmed 79 media deaths in the country since a civil war began in 2011.

Four more journalists and three other people working for the media were killed while covering the 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip over the summer, while at least five journalists were killed in Iraq, CPJ said.

The conflict between Ukraine’s new government and Russian-backed separatists took the lives of at least five journalists and two media workers this year, the first such deaths confirmed by CPJ in the country in more than a decade. All but one of those killed were international journalists.

Media workers were also killed while covering the fight against the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In Guinea, the bodies of a radio journalist and two media workers were found dumped in a sewer in the village of Wome, where they had accompanied a government delegation that was conducting a public health campaign, CPJ said.

CPJ includes in its tally only those journalists who were killed in reprisal for their work, in combat-related crossfire or while carrying out a dangerous assignment. It does not include those who died of illnesses or who were killed in a car or plane crash, unless the crash was the result of hostile action.

AFP Photo/Aris Messinis

Was North Korea’s Internet Outage The Result Of A Cyber Attack?

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

North Korea experienced a major Internet outage on Tuesday, according to companies that monitor global networks, raising suspicion that the country may have been the target of a cyber attack.

The loss of service came just days after President Barack Obama warned that the U.S. would respond to the recent computer hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the FBI has blamed on North Korea. But U.S. officials declined to say whether the government was responsible.

Researchers at Dyn, an Internet performance management company based in New Hampshire, began noticing increasing amounts of instability in North Korea’s connection over the weekend.

Networks that govern how traffic is supposed to reach North Korea “began to appear and disappear, sort of flickering on and off,” said James Cowie, chief scientist at Dyn. “That’s a very typical thing to see when an end site is under a large attack and it’s having trouble staying connected to the Internet. But it can also be consistent with something like a power outage.”

At about 2 a.m. Tuesday, (noon EST Monday), North Korea’s Internet connection went down, Dyn reported. It was restored after nine hours and 31 minutes, the company tweeted.

San Francisco-based CloudFlare confirmed the outage, but neither company could say what caused it.

North Korea may have decided to take itself off the Internet, CloudFlare’s co-founder, Matthew Prince, said in an email. Countries with low levels of connectivity and a high degree of government control over telecommunications have been known to do this when they feel threatened, as Egypt did during the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.

A decision could also have been made in China to terminate North Korea’s access to the Internet. The four networks that North Korea uses rely on a single provider, China Unicom, the state-run telecommunications company, Cowie said.

Or there may have been an attack by a third party. Experts said that it would not require the involvement of a state actor to overwhelm North Korea’s connection with traffic until it collapsed.

“While we don’t know how much capacity there is coming in and out of North Korea, it is unlikely to be more than 10s of gigabits per second,” Prince wrote. “It’s worth remembering that just a few weeks ago a teenager in the UK plead guilty for single handedly generating a 300-Gbps attack against Spamhaus.”

North Korea’s Internet problems could also be the result of a technical fault, such as a hardware failure or a severed cable.

“It’s unlikely that North Korea has an up-to-date Cisco support contract, and a critical resource may have failed for innocuous reasons,” Prince said.

Such loss of connectivity is not without precedent in North Korea.

“We have seen instability, and we’ve even seen multihour outages in the past because it is a kind of end-of-the-road, fragile connection,” Cowie said. “But I think the timing and the duration of this one are causing us to look a little harder at it.”

Obama on Friday said the U.S. would respond to the cyber attack on Sony, which led to a massive leak of sensitive information, and threats that prompted the studio to cancel the release of The Interview, a comedy centered on a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“They caused a lot of damage. And we will respond,” he said. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

U.S. officials did not elaborate on what the U.S. might do.

“We aren’t going to discuss publicly operational details about the possible response options, or comment on those kind of reports in any way, except to say that as we implement our responses, some will be seen, some may not be seen,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Monday.

The U.S. has discussed the issue with Chinese officials and asked for their cooperation. On Monday, a Chinese official told reporters that the country’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, had assured Secretary of State John F. Kerry in a phone conversation the previous day that Beijing “opposes all forms of cyber attacks and cyber terrorism.”

But ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying cautioned against “making any conclusions” about who was responsible for the cyber attack against Sony before there has been a full accounting of the facts.

North Korea has denied responsibility and reacted angrily to the U.S. accusations. On Sunday, the country’s defense department threatened to “blow up” the White House, the Pentagon and other U.S. targets if Washington retaliated against North Korea.

AFP Photo

‘Technical Problem’ Disrupts London Airports

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A computer failure caused widespread disruptions in airline service around London on Friday, delaying flights and stranding passengers at one of the busiest times of the week.

Britain’s air traffic control service confirmed a “technical problem” at its Swanwick center in southern England, but said the issue had been resolved.

“The system has been restored and we are in the process of returning to normal operations,” it said in a statement. “We apologize for any delays and the inconvenience this may have caused.”

Officials at London’s Heathrow Airport said flights were “experiencing delays and we will update passengers as soon as we have more information.”

Flights arriving at Gatwick airport continued to land but all departing flights were grounded, the BBC reported.

Photo: Tony Higsett via Wikimedia Commons

Air Travel: A Ban Or Not?

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

With two Texas health care workers infected with Ebola after a visitor from Liberia flew into Dallas carrying the deadly virus, there are growing calls in the U.S. to impose limits on travel from the hardest-hit countries in West Africa.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) was among the latest to urge President Barack Obama to consider a temporary ban on travel to the United States from countries afflicted with the virus, saying the House stood ready to act “if it becomes clear legislation is needed to ensure the threat is countered aggressively.” Other lawmakers were urging the U.S. to stop issuing visas to visitors coming from the region.

More than two dozen African countries have already imposed restrictions or outright bans on travel to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and numerous air carriers have canceled flights. On Thursday, four more U.S. airports began screening passengers arriving from those nations for signs of the disease, reported to have killed nearly 4,500 people in Africa.

But public health officials say the move to further restrict travel could have precisely the opposite of the intended effect.

Fewer flights and longer travel delays will make it harder to send medical supplies and personnel to the countries where they are most essential to fight the virus and halt its spread to the U.S., they say. Such restrictions could also drive Ebola victims underground, making it nearly impossible to find and isolate infected people before they spread the virus to others and providing a false sense of security in the U.S.

“The way we’re going to reduce risk to Americans is … stop it at the source, in Africa,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week.

Members of Congress calling for travel restrictions — most of them Republicans, but also some Democrats — have said that exceptions could be made for relief workers and supplies. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) this week suggested the use of military transport.

“We do not have to leave the door open to all travel to and from hot zones in Western Africa while Ebola is an unwelcome and dangerous stowaway on these flights,” Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) said at a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration was not considering a travel ban.

“If we were to put in place a travel ban or a visa ban, it would provide a direct incentive for individuals seeking to travel to the United States … to not be candid about their travel history,” Earnest said.

There is no proven treatment or vaccine for Ebola, which is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of patients once they develop symptoms. Health authorities can only isolate the sick, trace all those who came into contact with the patients and monitor them for symptoms.

The CDC has been working with international health and travel authorities to identify sick travelers before they arrive in the U.S.

Before passengers are allowed to leave West Africa, their temperature is taken and they are asked to fill out a questionnaire. In the last month, 77 people were prevented from boarding flights because they had symptoms that could be associated with Ebola, Frieden said this week. None was diagnosed with the virus.

Since Saturday, passengers arriving at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have been checked again. The enhanced screening was extended Thursday to the Newark, N.J., Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare and Washington-Dulles airports. Together, the sites account for 94 percent of the more than 1,000 passengers who arrive each week from those countries.

The California Department of Public Health has asked the federal government to consider adding California airports to the group. Some Texas lawmakers also want the measures implemented in their state.

The Obama administration is urging other countries to do the same. There are no direct flights between the U.S. and the hardest-hit African nations, so many passengers travel through Europe. Britain began screening some passengers this week and France said it would start Saturday.

But the measures aren’t foolproof. A rise in temperature, one of the most common early symptoms, can be offset with aspirin and other medication. The virus can incubate for up to three weeks, making it impossible to detect until long after an infected passenger has cleared customs. The Ebola patient who died last week in Dallas had been checked before he left Liberia, but he did not develop symptoms until after he arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 20.

Several Ebola scares have resulted in sick passengers being escorted off planes by crews in biohazard suits. None of the passengers was found to have Ebola. But the admission by CDC officials that one of two infected health care workers from Dallas was allowed to fly Monday with a low-grade fever added to public fear about the safety of air travel. Frieden said the risk to fellow passengers was low.

Dr. Kent Brantly, the American missionary who contracted Ebola in Liberia and survived, said he thought there was “a lot of irrational fear about Ebola spreading in the United States.”

“The answer is not simply to close the borders and let them deal with it themselves,” he told CNN in an interview aired Thursday. “We have to go put an end to this epidemic (in West Africa) or it’s going to keep coming back to cause problems and suffering in the global community.”

Existing restrictions have already complicated efforts to fight Ebola in Africa, which the United Nations says require flying in large numbers of personnel and supplies, including 300,000 pieces of personal protective equipment a month.

British Airways, Air France and most regional carriers have suspended flights to the three hard-hit countries, although the French airline has maintained service to its former colony, Guinea. Delta Airlines stopped flying to Liberia at the end of August, citing insufficient demand.

The U.N. is now setting up an air bridge out of Senegal and Ghana to fly in supplies and personnel. But the dearth of commercial options remains an obstacle, aid workers say.

Smaller shipments that would normally be delivered via commercial flights must now be bundled together and sent in chartered cargo planes, which takes longer and raises costs. Getting in and out of the affected countries can mean lengthy and circuitous routing, making it harder to rotate personnel who are working in dangerous conditions.

Sean Casey of the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps said he struggled to find an airline that would take him from Sierra Leone to Liberia to help open an Ebola treatment unit in August, turning what should have been a short hop into a two-day, multi-country ordeal. He said international volunteers won’t come without guarantees that they can get home.

“This is a very difficult response to recruit for,” Casey said. “So every single roadblock that’s put up, it means it’s that much harder to get the response that’s required.”

Staff writers Kathleen Hennessey in Washington, Tina Susman in New York and Eryn Brown in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Photo: Shyb via Flickr

WHO Declares Ebola Over In Senegal

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak over in Senegal, saying the country’s response is a good example of what to do when faced with an imported case of the deadly disease.

Senegal had only one patient, a man who contracted the virus in neighboring Guinea and arrived in the West African country by road in August.

The Senegalese government reacted quickly, identifying and monitoring 74 people who had close contact with the man, testing all suspected cases, stepping up surveillance at the country’s many entry points and conducting nationwide public awareness campaigns, the WHO said in a statement Friday.

The WHO dispatched a team of epidemiologists to work with the Senegalese Ministry of Health, which also received assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders.

Testing confirmed that the patient was free of Ebola on Sept. 5, and he returned to Guinea soon after.

Senegal has now gone 42 days – twice the maximum known incubation period of the Ebola virus – without new cases being detected, the WHO said. But it cautioned that the country’s geographic location makes it vulnerable to additional imported cases.

The world’s largest outbreak of Ebola continues to spread in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the hardest-hit countries. Cases have also been reported in the United States, Spain and Nigeria.

More than 4,500 people have died out of 9,216 suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola, according to figures released Friday by the WHO.

Photo: J. Patrick Fischer via Flickr

West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak Could Spread To 20,000 People, WHO Warns

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

In a grim assessment, the United Nations health agency said Thursday that the world’s worst Ebola outbreak continues to accelerate and could infect more than 20,000 people before it is brought under control.

More than 3,000 suspected and confirmed cases have been reported in four West African countries, and at least 1,552 people have died of the virus, according to figures released by the World Health Organization. But the actual number of cases in the areas of intense transmission could be two to four times those reported, WHO said.

“This far outstrips any historic Ebola outbreak in numbers,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, the organization’s assistant director general for emergency operations, told reporters in Geneva. “The largest outbreak in the past was about 400 cases.”

The disease has typically surfaced in remote forest villages and killed most of its victims before it could spread very far. This is the first time an outbreak has extended to four countries, including densely populated urban areas.

More than 40 percent of the cases have occurred in the last three weeks, although most are concentrated in only a few localities, WHO said. The fatality rate is 52 percent, lower than in previous outbreaks.

The outbreak began in Guinea in March and spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. A separate Ebola outbreak has killed at least 13 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo but is not believed to be related to the infections in West Africa.

There is no vaccine or cure for the disease, which is spread through contact with infected bodily fluids.

WHO’s assessment was contained in a roadmap that aims to stop Ebola transmission in the affected countries within six to nine months and to prevent it from spreading internationally. The strategy is expected to cost about $489 million and will need at least 750 international and 12,000 local health workers to implement, The Associated Press reported.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which has taken the lead in responding to Ebola outbreaks in Africa, welcomed WHO’s roadmap but cautioned that it should not raise false hope.

“Huge questions remain about who will implement the elements in the plan,” said Brice de le Vingne, the group’s operations director. “Who has the correct training for the variety of tasks that are detailed? How long will it take to train organizations to set up and run an Ebola management center? How long before any new centers become operational? Who will undertake the vitally important health education, contact tracing, and safe burials in the affected communities?”

None of the organizations in the most affected countries — the U.N., WHO, local governments, and aid groups including Doctors Without Borders — are set up to respond on the scale necessary to have a serious effect on the spread of the virus, he said in a statement.

AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso

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For Civilians Fleeing In Gaza, Escape Options Are Few

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY — A lonely figure in a striped button-down shirt stood silently Tuesday among a crush of emergency workers and journalists, watching as rescuers with a crane tried to reach a foot sticking out from the rubble of a high-rise office tower.

Ahmed Shaban Derbass’ brother and four sisters had escaped the relentless shelling that killed at least 74 people Sunday on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City. A friend offered them the keys to his office in the center of the city, where Israel had instructed civilians to take shelter.

But late Monday, as families across the Gaza Strip were gathering to break their daytime fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, two Israeli rockets slammed into the tower.

The building’s top floors collapsed. Derbass said his siblings were killed, along with a brother-in-law and five children ages 4 to 12.

The foot protruding from the fifth floor belonged to his sister Soura.

Israel’s 15-day campaign against the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and its allies has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing, seeking safety wherever they can find it.

Israel says it makes every effort to warn civilians to leave before an attack, dropping leaflets and sending recorded messages to Gazans’ cellphones. It blames Hamas for operating in civilian areas and putting residents in harm’s way. But many who live in the Mediterranean coastal enclave, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, say they have no place to go.

About 43 percent of the territory is subject to Israeli evacuation warnings or has been declared a no-go zone, according to the United Nations humanitarian agency. For most, leaving is not an option. Israel and Egypt have closed the borders to Gaza, where Hamas took control in 2007. Only the injured, the sick and those with foreign passports are allowed to leave.

“Gaza is unique in the annals of modern warfare in being a conflict zone with a fence around it, so civilians have no place to flee,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

More than 118,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are sheltering at 77 schools operated by the agency. But the schools are overcrowded and many people feel unsafe there, preferring to move in with friends and relatives or pitch a makeshift tent on the lawns of the main hospital in Gaza City.

On Monday evening, a shell hit a school in the city, injuring a girl and forcing the relocation of about 300 people, Gunness said. The next day, when the agency sent a team to investigate during a window arranged with the Israeli military, the school was hit again.

“We told them three times what was there,” Gunness said. “They have the exact GPS coordinates, and there was a U.N. flag on it.”

The offensive continued Tuesday. Israeli forces operating from the air, land and sea targeted 260 sites, including concealed rocket launchers, a weapons manufacturing facility and command centers, the military said. Other targets included three mosques that Israel said were being used by Hamas and its allies to store weapons, hold gatherings and launch attacks.

More than 50 Gaza residents were killed, lifting the Palestinian death toll in the campaign to at least 625, local health officials said. Most of those killed have been civilians, according to the United Nations. The fighting has also claimed the lives of 29 Israelis: 27 soldiers and two civilians who were killed in rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. Israel said 87 rockets were fired at it Tuesday.

Diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire have yielded no apparent breakthrough, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry reiterated U.S. support for truce initiative proposed by Egypt, while also opening the door to wider negotiations.

“Just reaching a cease-fire, clearly, is not enough,” Kerry said on a visit to Cairo. He said it was imperative to also address “all the concerns that have brought us to where we are today.”

Kerry met with officials who included Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Arab League leader Nabil Elaraby and the intelligence chief for the Palestinian Authority, Majid Faraj. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said his government had no plans to alter the terms of its truce proposal. Israel accepted the proposal but Hamas, which is suspicious of el-Sissi’s government, rejected it.

The U.N. relief agency has appealed for $115 million to provide displaced Palestinians with food, water, shelter, health care and therapy for traumatized children.

Gunness said the agency was doing the best it could to accommodate displaced Palestinians in the schools. “But these were schools that were built for children to be educated in, not for thousands of desperate people to come live in,” he said.

Among the new arrivals at a school Monday were Salah Tarakhan and nine family members.

As shelling intensified along Gaza’s northern border with Israel on Monday, Palestinian families streamed south from the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, walking as fast as they could.

“This is just like 1948,” when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes during the war that led to the creation of Israel, Tarakhan said as he hurried south with his family. “They are driving us from our houses.”

The family had spent four days huddled in a room at the back of their house in Beit Hanoun. But when their neighbor’s home was hit, they fled, leaving bread baking in the oven. With no idea where to go, they followed a column of people for two hours and arrived at a school that had just opened its doors.

Flushed and exhausted, they headed straight for a classroom and sank into a row of desks and chairs. Five other families were already staying there, and still more were arriving from Beit Lahiya. Tarakhan went looking for food, water or a mattress. He came back empty-handed.

“I wanted to wash my face, but I couldn’t find any water,” he said.

In the center of Gaza City the next day, rescue workers struggled for hours to dislodge the rubble and free the body of Derbass’ sister, sending sheets of white office paper fluttering to the ground. The thud of artillery fire echoed around them. A jet streaked by, causing many in the crowd to flinch.

The rescuers decided that the structure was too unstable to continue, so they wrapped the exposed leg in a sheet and left the body wedged on the fifth floor. Defeated, the brother made his way to the Shifa hospital morgue to collect the remains of other family members for a hasty burial. He has one surviving sister, who is living with her husband’s family.

“There were just body parts in the bags,” said Derbass, 38, who works at a children’s hospital.

“I want you to know who they are,” he added.

His brother, a newlywed, was an accountant; two of his sisters were teachers; another was a pharmacist. “None of us are terrorists,” he said. “None of us have any charge against us, and even if we did, they shouldn’t attack our families.”

One sister, a brother-in-law and their children were German citizens, he said. They had fled the shelling in Beit Lahiya, moving in with the rest of the family in the eastern Gaza City neighborhood of Shajaiya. A few days later, Israeli ground forces, backed by tanks, moved into the area overnight, exchanging intense fire with militants they said had built tunnels under the homes to strike at Israel. At first light, almost the entire neighborhood fled.

Derbass was able to move his wife and three children in with a work colleague, but there was no room for the rest of the family. They thought they would be safe in the office tower.

“There is no safe place in Gaza,” Derbass said.

Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Putin Urges Pro-Russia Separatists In Ukraine To Delay Referendum

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he had pulled back troops from the border with Ukraine and called on Kremlin-allied separatists to delay a referendum on whether to give greater autonomy to Ukraine’s regions and declare independence from Kiev.

Putin, speaking after a meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter in Moscow, said he had asked for the postponement of the referendum, planned for Sunday in the southeastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, to create “proper conditions” for dialogue.

“We’re always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern,” Putin told reporters. “We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds.”

Putin, who has vowed to protect ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republic, also called for an immediate halt to all “military and punitive operations” in the region, where separatists have seized government buildings in at least a dozen cities and towns.

“This method of settling the internal political conflict is not a reliable way of resolving all political disputes,” Putin was quoted as saying by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency. “On the contrary, they deepen the divisions.”

Ukraine’s transitional government launched an offensive late last week to reclaim regions under the control of the separatists, who Ukrainian and Western leaders contend were armed and instigated by Moscow after the ouster of its ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

In March, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after a referendum on secession from Ukraine, and supporters of Ukrainian unity fear that Russia is trying to repeat the tactic.

Despite Putin’s conciliatory comments Wednesday, there was no immediate sign that the Kremlin’s allies were backing down. A protest leader in Donetsk, Alexander Vaskovsky, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that there was no need to put off a referendum.

“I’m extremely negative about this,” he was quoted as saying.

There was also no indication of a change in Russia’s military posture along Ukraine’s eastern border, a senior official with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization told Reuters news agency.

An estimated 40,000 Russian troops were massed along the frontier, holding what Russian officials said were military exercises.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov