Beijing, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — A senior North Korean official has arrived in Beijing, reportedly en route to the United States for talks ahead of a possible second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Thursday that Kim Yong Chol had arrived at Beijing airport and was expected to leave for Washington later in the day.
A motorcade that included the North Korean ambassador's car and a Chinese car with a sign reading "state guest" could be seen departing from a VIP area at the airport.
Kim Yong Chol is a former North Korean spy chief who has been holding talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on North Korea's nuclear weapons program and related issues.
Athens, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — Greece's left-wing prime minister narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament late Wednesday days after the governing coalition he leads collapsed over an agreement to end a long-running dispute over neighboring Macedonia's name.
Lawmakers voted 151-148 on a motion called by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, giving his government the minimum it needed in the 300-seat legislature to survive. During a heated debate earlier in the day, Tsipras argued the Macedonia deal would bolster stability in Europe's Balkan region.
"At the critical times, we all must have a clear position," he said before the vote, which coincided with the one British leader Theresa May won over her Brexit deal with the European Union.
The leader of a small Greek nationalist party, Panos Kammenos, quit as defense minister in Tsipras' government last weekend over the proposed agreement with Macedonia. The deal calls for the country to be renamed North Macedonia in exchange for Greece lifting its objections to its young northern neighbor joining NATO and the European Union.
Several members of Kammenos' party voted to support the government. Along with independents and opposition dissenters, they gave the 44-year-old Tsipras six votes from outside his party, allowing him to remain in power. His term ends in October.
Greece's western allies also strongly back the deal Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev agreed to in June. Russia remains strongly opposed to the prospect of Macedonia's NATO membership.
Tsipras has strongly defended his efforts to end the 27-year dispute with Macedonia over that country's name, which Greece long argued implied designs on its own Macedonia and on Greek cultural heritage.
Tsipras had said he would seek to get the Greek parliament's approval of the name-change deal soon after the confidence vote.
Hardliners in both countries claim the deal conceded too much to the other side. But Greek government officials say they are optimistic the agreement will be ratified in Athens even though most opposition parties reject it.
In Greece, sentiment is particularly high in the northern Macedonia province, where opponents say their regional identity and heritage is being signed away. Posters have appeared in recent days with pictures of local lawmakers who back the deal and the caption: "Will you betray our Macedonia?"
Four people were arrested Wednesday over the posters in the northern towns of Grevena and Kozani and charged with breaching advertising laws and traffic codes.
Opponents of the name-change deal are planning a protest rally in Athens on Sunday.
New Orleans, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — A prominent American anchorwoman on Iranian state television has been arrested by the FBI during a visit to the U.S., the broadcaster reported Wednesday, and her son said she was being held in a prison, apparently as a material witness.
Marzieh Hashemi, who worked for the network's English-language service, was detained in St. Louis, where she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary after visiting relatives in the New Orleans area. She was then taken to Washington, according to her elder son, Hossein Hashemi.
The FBI said in an email that it had no comment on the arrest of the woman who was born Melanie Franklin in New Orleans and has worked for Iran's state television network for 25 years.
Hossein Hashemi said his mother lives in Tehran and comes back to this country about once a year to see her family, usually scheduling documentary work somewhere in the U.S. as well.
"We still have no idea what's going on," said Hashemi, a research fellow at the University of Colorado who was interviewed by phone from Washington. He also said he and his siblings had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.
The incident comes as Iran faces increasing criticism of its own arrests of dual citizens and other people with Western ties. Those cases have previously been used as bargaining chips in negotiations with world powers.
Federal law allows judges to order witnesses to be arrested and detained if the government can prove their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case and that they would be a flight risk and unlikely to respond to a subpoena. The statute generally requires those witnesses to be promptly released once they are deposed.
Marzieh Hashemi, an American citizen, had not been contacted by the FBI before she was detained and would "absolutely" have been willing to cooperate with the agency, her son said.
Asked whether his mother had been involved in any criminal activity or knew anyone who might be implicated in a crime, Hashemi said, "We don't have any information along those lines."
Hashemi said his mother was arrested as she was about to board a flight from St. Louis to Denver. A spokesman for St. Louis Lambert International Airport declined to comment and referred questions to the FBI.
The constitutionality of the material witness law has "never been meaningfully tested," said Ricardo J. Bascuas, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. "The government only relies on it when they need a reason to arrest somebody but they don't have one."
No matter the reason for Marzieh Hashemi's detention, she should have been granted a court appearance by now, Bascuas said.
She apparently was unable to call her daughter until Tuesday night. The family is trying to hire an attorney, but it has been difficult because she has not been charged with a crime, her son said.
Iran's state broadcaster held a news conference and launched a hashtag campaign for Hashemi, using the same techniques families with loved ones held in the Islamic Republic use to highlight their cases.
"We will not spare any legal action" to help her, said Paiman Jebeli, deputy chief of Iran's state IRIB broadcaster. Iran's Press TV aired footage of her anchoring news programs and discussing the war in Syria, set to dramatic music.
There were no references to any case against Hashemi in U.S. federal courts, nor in Missouri.
Hashemi describes herself online as having studied journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She converted to Islam in 1982 at age 22 after meeting Iranian activist students in Denver.
She married a man she met while in journalism school. They had two sons and a daughter. Her husband is dead, said Hashemi's brother, Milton Leroy Franklin of the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
Last week, Iran confirmed it is holding U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White at a prison, making him the first American known to be detained under President Donald Trump's administration.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state TV that Hashemi's arrest indicates the "apartheid and racist policy" of the Trump administration.
"We hope that the innocent person will be released without any condition," Ghasemi said.
At least four other American citizens are being held in Iran, including Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father, Baquer, both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges. Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 year in prison.
Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage-related charges.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him. His family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
Washington, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — A suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians, in northern Syria on Wednesday, just a month after President Donald Trump declared that IS had been defeated and he was pulling out U.S. forces.
The attack in the strategic northeastern town of Manbij highlighted the threat posed by the Islamic State group despite Trump's claims. It could also complicate what had already become a messy withdrawal plan, with the president's senior advisers disagreeing with the decision and then offering an evolving timetable for the removal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops.
The attack, which also wounded three U.S. troops, was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.
The dead included a number of fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought alongside the Americans against the Islamic State, according to officials and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
According to a U.S. official, one of the U.S. civilians killed was an intelligence specialist working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The other was an interpreter, who was a contractor.
The attack prompted new complaints about the withdrawal and underscored Pentagon assertions that IS is still a threat and capable of deadly attacks.
In a Dec. 19 tweet announcing the withdrawal, Trump said, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." He said the troops would begin coming home "now." That plan triggered immediate pushback from military leaders, including the resignation of the defense secretary.
Over the past month, however, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the timeline, and U.S. officials have suggested it will likely take several months to safely withdraw American forces from Syria.
Not long after the attack Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence repeated claims of the Islamic State's defeat. Speaking at the State Department, Pence said the "caliphate has crumbled" and the militant network "has been defeated." Later in the day he released a statement condemning the attack but affirming the withdrawal plan.
"As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to re-establish their evil and murderous caliphate - not now, not ever," he said.
Others, however, immediately pointed to the attack as a reason to reverse or adjust the withdrawal plan.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer and prominent voice on foreign affairs on Capitol Hill, said during a committee hearing Wednesday he is concerned that Trump's withdrawal announcement had emboldened the Islamic State and created dangerous uncertainty for American allies.
"I know people are frustrated, but we're never going to be safe here unless we are willing to help people over there who will stand up against this radical ideology," he said.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said the attack demonstrates the lethal capability of IS and "the fact that it happened in Manbij, probably the single most complicated area of Syria, demonstrates that the president clearly doesn't understand the complexity of the problem."
Manbij is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from IS in 2016 with help from the U.S.-led coalition.
But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main U.S. Kurdish ally, the YPG militia, as "terrorists" linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil.
The town has been at the center of tensions in northern Syria, with the militaries of two NATO members, the U.S. and Turkey, on opposing sides. The two sides began joint patrols around Manbij in November as part of an agreement aimed at easing tensions.
Slotkin, a former senior Pentagon adviser on Syria and other international issues, said it's time for Trump to amend or change his withdrawal order to "something more consistent with the threat" in Syria.
Others suggested the attack could trigger change.
"Certainly the Islamic State follows the news closely, and observing the recent controversy over a potential withdrawal would incentivize them to try for a spectacular attack to sway both public and presidential opinion," said Jim Stravidis, a retired Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander.
Trump, meanwhile, reinforced his withdrawal decision during a meeting with about a half-dozen GOP senators late Wednesday at the White House.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was at the meeting, told reporters on a conference call that the president remained "steadfast" in his decision not to stay in Syria - or Afghanistan - "forever." But the senator did not disclose the latest thinking on withdrawal timeline.
Paul, who has been one of the few voices in the GOP encouraging the president's noninterventionist streak, said Trump told the group, "We're not going to continue the way we've done it."
Video of Wednesday's attack released by local activists and news agencies showed a restaurant that suffered extensive damage and a street covered with debris and blood. Several cars were also damaged. Another video showed a helicopter flying over the area.
A security camera showed a busy street, and then a ball of fire engulfing people and others running for cover as the blast went off.
The names of the American victims are being withheld until their families can be notified.
Nairobi, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — The death toll from an extremist attack on a luxury hotel and shopping complex in Nairobi climbed to 21, plus the five militants killed, police said Wednesday in the aftermath of the brazen overnight siege by al-Shabab gunmen. Two people accused of facilitating the attack were arrested.
The number of those killed at the DusitD2 complex rose with the discovery of six more bodies at the scene and the death of a wounded police officer, said Joseph Boinnet, inspector-general of Kenyan police. Twenty-eight people were hurt and taken to the hospital, he said.
In a televised address to the nation earlier in the day, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that the all-night operation by security forces to retake the complex was over and that all of the extremists had been killed.
"We will seek out every person that was involved in the funding, planning and execution of this heinous act," he vowed.
In an attack that demonstrated al-Shabab's continued ability to strike Kenya's capital despite setbacks on the battlefield, extremists stormed the place with guns and explosives. Security camera footage released to local media showed a suicide bomber blowing himself up in a grassy area in the complex, the flash visible along with smoke billowing from the spot where he had been standing.
Of the civilian victims, 16 were Kenyan, one was British, one was American and three were of African descent but their nationalities were not yet identified, police said.
Al-Shabab, which is based in neighboring Somalia and allied with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility. The Islamic extremist group also carried out the 2013 attack at Nairobi's nearby Westgate Mall that killed 67 people, and an assault on Kenya's Garissa University in 2015 that claimed 147 lives, mostly students.
While U.S. airstrikes and African Union forces in Somalia have degraded the group's ability to operate, it is still capable of carrying out spectacular acts of violence in retaliation for the Kenyan military's campaign against it.
The bloodshed in Kenya's capital appeared designed to inflict maximum damage to the country's image of stability and its tourism industry, an important source of revenue.
The government said late Tuesday that buildings were secure. However, gunfire continued into Wednesday morning, and dozens of trapped people were rescued overnight. Several loud booms were heard Wednesday as teams sought to clear the complex of booby traps and other explosives.
Kenyatta's announcement that the security operation was complete came about 20 hours after the first reports of the attack.
The Kenyan Red Cross said about 50 people were unaccounted for. But many of those were believed not to have been in the complex during the attack.
Ken Njoroge, CEO of a company in the DustiD2 complex that offers mobile banking services, said he was unable to locate several employees. "It's very difficult for the families because the passage of time only makes the problem bigger," he said.
The American killed in the attack was identified as Jason Spindler, co-founder and managing director of San Francisco-based I-DEV International. Spindler's father, Joseph, said his son worked with international companies to form business partnerships in Kenya that would boost local economies.
The Houston-raised Spindler had a brush with tragedy on 9/11: He was employed by a financial firm at the World Trade Center at the time of the 2001 terrorist attack but was running late that morning and was emerging from the subway when the first tower fell, according to his father. He became covered in dust and debris as he tried to help others, the elder Spindler said.
In the Nairobi attack, a man who gave only his first name, Davis, described how he had escaped with colleagues by fleeing down a fire escape.
"It's a traumatic experience. It shakes you," he said. Still, Davis said he was impressed by the "inner strength" and compassion of people who helped each other in the midst of danger.
His own thoughts, he said, were: "Get people out and get out yourself. That's it."