Moscow ‘knows nothing about’ reported April visit by Tillerson

Moscow diplomats say they are not aware of any preparations for a visit by US State Secretary Rex Tillerson. Reuters said the American would arrive in Russia in April.

When asked about the reported visit on Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Interfax: “I know nothing about it.”

 
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson © Lintao Zhang

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said she could not confirm Tillerson’s visit either.

“At this stage, we do not intend to neither confirm nor refute the information which emerged [in the media],” Zakharova wrote on her FB page, pointing out that the information had initially been leaked.

“It is time for US political elites to decide: have ‘the Russian hackers’ hacked the US State Department servers again or is the threat to the security of US information of an American origin?” she joked.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dodged the question about the news agency report.

“Let’s wait for the official statements on the matter rather than those of Reuters. For the State Department and the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation to announce the visit,” he said.

Reuters originally ran the story on the alleged visit under the headline “Tillerson plans to skip NATO meeting, visit Russia in April,” it then explained that the reason was that the summit will overlap with a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Florida estate on April 6-7.

While Tillerson will not be in attendance at the NATO summit on April 5-6, he is scheduled to hold a meeting with the members of the international coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL) on Wednesday this week, when all of the ministers will be present, according to a spokesman cited by RIA Novosti. The US will be represented by Tillerson’s deputy in Brussels.

READ MORE: US hosts anti-ISIS meeting of 68 nations, fails to invite Russia, Iran

“[US Undersecretary] Tom Shannon will represent the United States at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting,” the State Department spokesman told RIA Novosti.

Before he goes to Russia, Tillerson is scheduled to take part in a meeting of G7 foreign ministers early in April, the spokesman added.

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Former Haiti President Aristide Survives Assassination Attempt

Protests in support of the still-popular former president broke out soon after the incident.

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide survived an apparent assassination attempt Monday when gunmen opened fire on his motorcade, injuring two passersby.

RELATED: After Creating Haiti's Cholera Crisis, UN Can Barely Fight It

Aristide was leaving a courthouse in Port-au-Prince, providing testimony for a money laundering case against Jean Anthony Nazaire, former commissary of the Haitian national police, when bullets flew toward his car.

Ira Kurzban, a Miami attorney who represents Aristide, told NBC News that "at least two people standing in front of the car were hit and there (was) blood on the right front bumper and headlight of the vehicle."

"Thank God no one was killed and at least one of the shooting victims was taken to the university medical center that President Aristide was instrumental in founding," Kurzban told the outlet.

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Protests in support of the still-popular former president broke out soon after. Aristide is regarded as heroic by many in the country for working his way to the top post as the country's first democratically elected president after growing up in poverty. An adherent of liberation theology, the former Catholic priest played an instrumental role in expelling dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, whose family ruled the country for almost 30 years.

RELATED: Caribbean Denounces Trump Nationalism, Vows Better Cooperation​​​​​​​

Elected twice as president, Aristide was forced to flee the country both times, the first time in 1991 to Venezuela and then later the United States after a military coup against him. He was returned to office in 1994 with the help of pressure from the U.S. Then in 2004, the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush backed a coup against him and he was flown out of the country, which Aristide described as a kidnapping, spending his first months in exile in Jamaica before relocating to South Africa.

Aristide returned to Haiti in 2011, following a massive earthquake the year before which devastated the country, so that he could be a part of the rebuilding process.

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Lavrov: US antimissile deployment in Asia-Pacific ‘disproportionate’ to Pyongyang threat

South Korea’s decision to deploy the THAAD antimissile system from the US is disproportionate to the threat posed by North Korea, which was voiced as justification by both Seoul and Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

“We have drawn attention to the serious risks posed by the deployment of the US global antiballistic missile system in Asia-Pacific,” Lavrov said after meeting his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in Moscow. The two ministers met alongside their respective military colleagues, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.

 
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors arrive at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea © USFK

“We have voiced our assessments, according to which, if one wants to deal with threats posed by DPRK, the creation of such ABM system as well as pumping weapons into the region are a response far from proportionate,” Lavrov said.

He added that both Moscow and Tokyo condemn Pyongyang’s violation of resolutions of the UN Security Council restricting its missile and nuclear development. Russia believes that international sanctions imposed against North Korea for defying the council “should not be perceived as an instrument of punishment, but rather a stimulus for steering the situation back into political and negotiations track.”

South Korea decided to deploy the THAAD system, due to be fully operational by August, saying it was necessary to protect from a possible missile attack by North Korea. The deployment angered China, which believes that the American system compromises its national security. Beijing is reportedly retaliating against Seoul with a round of economic measures, hitting Korean tourism and export to China.

Russia has similar concerns over the US deployment of ABM shield in Eastern Europe. Washington claims the system is needed to protect European NATO members from an attack by Iran and has brushed aside criticism from Moscow.

 

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41 Killed in US Attack on Syrian Mosque

"It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it," one witness told AFP.

On Thursday the U.S. government confirmed that it carried out an airstrike in Syria which, according to AFP, struck a mosque killing 46 civilians.

RELATED: 70% Spike in Civilian Deaths by US-Led Coalition in Syria, Iraq

A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command initially denied that the bombing had targeted the mosque, saying instead that it had attacked a meeting closeby held by al-Qaida in Syria.

However, the same spokesperson later told AFP reporters that while the precise location of the strike was "unclear", it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque late on Wednesday night in Al-Jineh, in Aleppo province.

Abu Muhammed, a village resident, told AFP that he "heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it."

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"I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn't even recognize some of the bodies," he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 46 people were killed in the attack and over 100 wounded.

"We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike," said Colonel John J. Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

The U.S. reported this month that its attacks in Iraq and Syria had killed at least 220 civilians since 2014, though most human rights groups say the numbers are much higher.

Just last week, a Pentagon investigation into a U.S. attack on Yemeni village which killed dozens of women and children absolved military personnel of any war crimes.

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Venezuela Rejects OAS Intervention Report

Caracas- Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro repudiated the report on the nation presented by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, that ''ignores the institutional processes and principles of the organization.''

According to the local media, the head of state described today the document presented by the Uruguayan politician as illegitimate and illegal, and considered that its sole purpose was to destabilize the Bolivarian Revolution and promote foreign intervention in the South American nation.

Almagro, a well-known enemy of the Venezuelan people, has forged false assumptions against the Republic in order to accentuate the economic war against our society, said the statement published on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

His performance as the head of the OAS has exceeded his powers and has been marked by abuse of power, guided by his complicity with the coup, extremist and antidemocratic opposition in Venezuela, the text argues.

It is the despicable hatred of converts, it says, what moves his actions, his aberrant writings will be lost in the night of history as an example of the extent to which a bent person is capable of destroying the function of an organism.

It also regrets that Almagro 'revives the darkest pages of the interventionist and coup history of the OAS, by imposing mechanisms that flagrantly violate Venezuela's legal and constitutional order and the OAS Charter, its fundamental principles and rigorous norms which regulate their performance.'

The Foreign Ministers of the Hemisphere, meeting at the OAS General Assembly on June 15, 2016, had noted with concern such irregularities, and decided to refer the Permanent Council to review its action, the president said.

He also accuses Almagro of leading 'the hemispheric concert of the fascist right that harasses, and aggressively attacks Venezuela, without scruple or ethics, characterized by the anti-legal and fraudulent forging of false positives against our sacred homeland.'

Venezuela will take legal action against the Secretary of the OAS, said Maduro, who also reaffirmed that 'conspiracy, miserable and insurrectionary action' promoted from that organization will not stop the country and the people on their way to the bright future marked by the Liberators.

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N. Korea threatens ‘merciless’ strikes as US, S. Korea & Japan hold joint drills

North Korea has warned that it will launch “merciless” strikes if the US strike group that arrived for two days of trilateral drills with South Korea and Japan infringes on Pyongyang’s “sovereignty and dignity.”

© US Army

“If they infringe on the DPRK’s [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s] sovereignty and dignity even a bit, its army will launch merciless ultra-precision strikes from ground, air, sea, and underwater,” said the North’s state news agency, KCNA, as cited by Reuters.

Pyongyang pointed out that “many enemy carrier-based aircraft flew along a course near territorial air and waters of the DPRK to stage drills of dropping bombs and making surprise attacks on the ground targets of its army.”

North Korea has been steadily pounding the South and the US with strong rhetoric. KCNA reported on Monday that “if even a single shell is fired into the territory in which the sovereignty of the DPRK is exercised, the bases of aggression and provocation will be reduced to such debris that no living thing can be found.”

“The US should properly understand that its slightest misjudgment about the DPRK will lead it to final doom,” the agency added.

The latest statement comes as, on Tuesday, US, Japanese, and South Korean Navy forces kicked off joint two-day drills to the east of the Korean peninsula and north of Japan with the participation of Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) , South Korean Sejong the Great (DDG- 991), and Japanese Kirishima (DDG-174) missile destroyers.

The exercises are being billed as “promoting communications, interoperability, and partnership in the 7th Fleet area of operations.”

“The exercise will employ tactical data link systems to trade communications, intelligence and other data among the ships in the exercise. It will allow participants to enhance tactical capabilities, increase self-defense, strengthen partnerships, and improved situational awareness,” the US navy said in a statement.

Pyongyang launched four missiles to show their discontent with the war games on March 5.

Tensions with the North were also exacerbated when America’s ambassador to the UN said that the US’ new administration is reviewing its Korea strategy, stressing that “all options are on the table.

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Ivanka Trump was importing 50 tonnes of Chinese clothing as her father was saying 'buy American'

More than 50 tonnes of Ivanka Trump-branded clothing was imported into the US as her father told the country “we will... buy American and hire American”, it has emerged.

At least 82 shipments also reportedly passed through US customs from China between the election on 8 November and 26 February.

The investigation by news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) also revealed more than two tonnes in ladies’ polyester woven blouses, 1,600 cowhide leather wallets and 23 tonnes in footwear entered the country during this period.

  • Trump says 'buy American' while Ivanka wears French designer dress

Analysis last July found not one of 25 different Trump-branded clothing items at New York City’s flagship Macy’s store were made in the US but mostly in China and Vietnam.

During Mr Trump’s inauguration speech at Capitol Hill on 20 January he said: “We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.”

As well as talking of “American carnage”, he castigated domestic and foreign manufacturers for using overseas labour.

But AFP claims to have seen US customs bills that prove his eldest daughter’s company is still buying thousands of items from China, including 53.5 tonnes that were steaming towards American ports during the speech.

The goods were made in China by three US companies which hold Ivanka Trump licences, including G-Ill, Mondani Handbags and Marc Fisher Footwear.

Marc Fisher told AFP it had no comment and others did not respond to requests.

Apparently more than 1,200 shipments of Trump-branded products have flowed into the US from China and Hong Kong over the past decade.

G-Ill reportedly sold $29.4m of the goods in 2015 and sales in the first nine months of 2016 were up $13.3m, according to the firm’s public filings.

The 70-year-old property mogul, who frustrated China by talking to Taiwan’s president and saying the US will protect interests in the South China Sea, has previously accused the Asian country of stealing US jobs and being behind the 'hoax' of climate change.

The latest news also follows a spike in the sales of Ivanka Trump clothing after White House advisor Kellyanne Conway plugged her lines on Fox & Friends.

This is despite Nordstrom dropping all her products, following the Grab Your Wallet campaign, which press secretary Sean Spicer called a “direct attack” on the president’s policies.

 

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US confirms deployment of hundreds of Marines to Syria to fight ISIS

Hundreds of US Marines have arrived in Syria to establish an outpost in support of the operation to retake the city of Raqqa, the de-facto Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) capital in the country, the US-led coalition confirmed on Thursday.
 

"We are talking about an additional 400 or so forces in total, and they will be there for a temporary period," coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said, as cited by Reuters.

The deployment is an addition to the existing 500 US forces already in Syria and is aimed at accelerating the defeat of IS in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa city, Dorrian said.

According to the official, the additional forces would be working with local partners in Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition. He stressed they would not have a frontline role.

Dorrian said the new forces comprised a Marines artillery unit and Army Rangers.

Reports of the new deployment first surfaced in US media on Wednesday.

The Washington Post, which was the first to break the news citing anonymous defense officials, stated that the marines will be working to establish an outpost from which they can fire artillery in support of the fight for Raqqa.

According to the newspaper, the new deployment is part of an amphibious task force of the 11th US Marine Expeditionary Unit, which left San Diego on Navy ships in October. It includes part of an artillery battery that can fire 155mm shells from M777 Howitzers.

The Washington Post said that the marines will be based within no more than 32km (20 miles) from the frontline outside Raqqa, as that is the maximum range of their artillery.

“The marines answer a problem that the [operation] has faced. [They now provide] all-weather fires considering how the weather is this time of year in northern Syria,” an official was cited as saying.

NBC on its part reported that the taskforce was pulled from Kuwait, also citing US defense officials, adding that the deployment is part of the new effort to “accelerate the fight” against the militants. 

READ MORE: 'Russia practically mediating between NATO members US & Turkey over Syria'

The news of the US deployment comes after American soldiers were spotted traveling in an armored convoy near the Syrian city of Manbij, some 100km northwest of Raqqa, over the weekend in Strykers – heavily-armed, eight-wheel armored vehicles. The US-led coalition in Syria confirmed the presence of American forces around Manbij on Saturday, with US spokesman calling it a “deliberate action” aimed at ensuring that forces within the US-led coalition “keep the focus on defeating ISIS.”

Raqqa has an estimated 3,000-4,000 IS fighters, but the group’s leaders have been rapidly fleeing the city lately - with the advance of liberation forces, the New York Times said on Wednesday citing a US defense official. The operation to liberate the city from terrorists, codenamed Operation Euphrates Rage, was launched by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on November 5, 2016.

In the most recent development, on Monday, the SDF announced that they had severed the road between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zur to the east, cutting off a supply route for the extremist group and further isolating the militants in the city, Rudaw media network reported.

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