Washington, Oct 1 (AP/UNB) -Stricter Trump administration immigration policies have stymied Pentagon plans to restart a program that allowed thousands of people with critical medical or Asian and African language skills to join the military and become American citizens, according to several U.S. officials.
The decade-old program has been on hold since 2016 amid concerns that immigrant recruits were not being screened well enough, and security threats were slipping through the system. Defense officials shored up the vetting process, and planned to relaunch the program earlier this month.
But there was an unexpected barrier when Homeland Security officials said they would not be able to protect new immigrant recruits from being deported when their temporary visas expired after they signed a contract to join the military, the U.S. officials said. They were not authorized to publicly describe internal discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The program is called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI. The plan to restart it was backed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who believes that noncitizens can bring key skills, language abilities, and cultural knowledge to the military.
Mattis, a combat veteran of multiple war tours, has fought with and commanded foreign nationals, and he believes their service adds to the lethality of America's fighting force, according to the officials.
The Pentagon chief told reporters late last month that the program is designed to enlist immigrants with needed skills. "We need and want every qualified patriot willing to serve and able to serve," Mattis said. At the time, he said the department was working diligently to address the security screening problems.
When asked about the latest developments, Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said, "the unique skill sets these individuals bring is one of the reasons the U.S. military is the world's premier fighting force." She had no comment on the internal discussions to relaunch the program.
The officials familiar with the discussions said Homeland Security told the Pentagon that it would not be able sign any agreement blocking the deportation of the immigrant recruits brought in under the program.
In previous years, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service used an informal process to give MAVNI recruits protection when their temporary or student visas expired because they were entering military service. In addition, Congress included new restrictions in the 2019 defense bill that limit each military service to 1,000 such recruits per year.
President Donald Trump has made tighter controls on immigration, both legal and illegal, an important element of his administration.
Asked about the issue, a Homeland Security official said recruits without legal immigration status would be subject to deportation, but each case is reviewed individually. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Over the past 10 years, the military services have recruited more than 10,000 immigrants through the program.
In recent years, however, the program has been mired in controversy amid growing concerns about security threats and struggles to develop a proper screening process.
According to court documents, more than 20 people in the program have been the subject of FBI or Pentagon counterintelligence or criminal investigations since 2013.
Gleason said the Defense Department suspended the program in 2016 after several classified assessments concluded that it "was vulnerable to an unacceptable level of risk from insider threats such as espionage, terrorism, and other criminal activity."
Army Secretary Mark Esper, another advocate of the program, said recently that about of 80 percent of MAVNI recruits who have gone through screening were approved and enlisted into the service. But he added that the Army must "exercise due diligence, to make sure we understand who is coming into our ranks and just do that. The process is never quick enough, certainly for them, and for me as well."
Since the program's suspension in 2016, hundreds of immigrants have been stalled in the intake process, waiting a year or more to get through the updated screening.
Dozens of the immigrant recruits were discharged or had their contracts canceled as the background checks dragged on, leading to complaints and lawsuits. Defense officials said the delays were likely because the remaining applicants required more complicated security checks that take longer to complete.
In response to the suits, the Army stopped processing discharges last month and reinstated at least three dozen recruits who had been thrown out of the service.
Officials said the Pentagon is exploring other ways to adjust or replace the program in order to bring immigrants with those skills into the military. But the officials said it will be difficult and that it probably will take a good deal of time.
The struggle with the program comes as the administration has imposed more stringent rules for immigration, aimed largely at the country's border with Mexico.
Those moves reflect Trump's calculation that his promise to end illegal immigration and build a wall along that border fueled his election, and that stressing the same issues will drive voters to the polls and help the GOP retain its majorities in the Senate and House.
The MAVNI program, however, is not targeted at Spanish speakers, because the military has a large number of those. Instead, according to the Pentagon, the top languages spoken by recruits brought in through the program are Korean, Chinese Mandarin, Nepalese, Hindi, Swahili, Tagalog, French, Yoruba, Russian and Portuguese Brazilian.
Seoul, Oct 1 (AP/UNB) — South Korea began clearing mines from two sites inside the heavily fortified border with North Korea on Monday under tension-reducing agreements reached this year. Seoul says North Korea is expected to do the same.
The development comes amid renewed international diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear weapons program after weeks of stalemated negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to visit Pyongyang this month to try to set up a second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korean troops entered the Demilitarized Zone on Monday morning to remove mines around the border village of Panmunjom and another frontline area where the rivals plan their first joint searches with North Korea for soldiers during the 1950-53 Korean War, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry.
The South Korean troops will try to focus on taking out mines on the southern parts of Panmunjom's Joint Security Area and the so-called "Arrow Head Hill," where one of the fiercest battles during the Korean War happened. Seoul officials believe the remains of about 300 South Korean and U.N. forces are in the Arrow Head Hill and likely many Chinese and North Korean remains too.
South Korean Defense Ministry officials said they couldn't immediately confirm whether North Korea also began demining on the northern parts of the two sites. But they said they expected the North to abide by the tension-easing deals their defense chiefs struck on the sidelines of their leaders' summit last month in Pyongyang.
Aiming to reduce conventional military threats, the Koreas' defense chiefs also agreed to withdraw 11 frontline guard posts by December and set up buffer zones along their land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the borderline to prevent accidental armed clashes.
About 2 million mines are believed to be peppered inside the Koreas' 248-kilometer (155-mile)-long Demilitarized Zone that was originally created as a buffer zone at the end of the Korean War. The DMZ is the world's most heavily fortified border that is also guarded by hundreds of thousands of combat troops, barbed wire fences and tank traps on both sides.
Many experts say the fate of inter-Korean deals can be affected by how nuclear negotiations would go between the United States and North Korea. Past rapprochement efforts were often stalled after an international standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions intensified.
After provocative tests of three intercontinental ballistic missiles and a powerful nuclear weapon last year, North Korea entered talks with the United States and South Korea earlier this year, saying it's willing to deal away its expanding nuclear arsenal. Kim Jong Un has subsequently held a series of summits with U.S., South Korean and Chinese leaders and taken some steps like dismantling his nuclear-testing site.
Nuclear diplomacy later came to a standstill amid disputes over how genuine North Korea is about its disarmament pledge. But Trump, Pompeo and other U.S. officials have recently reported progress in the denuclearization discussions with the North. Pompeo is to make his third trip to North Korea soon for talks.
Male, Sep 30 (AP/UNB) — A Maldives court has released a former president who was serving a 19-month sentence for failing to cooperate with a police investigation.
The high court in the Indian Ocean archipelago released Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on bail Sunday. It comes a week after opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih unexpectedly won the country's third-ever multiparty presidential election.
Gayoom ruled as a strongman for 30 years until introducing democracy in 2008. Outgoing President Abdul Yameen Gayoom, Gayoom's half-brother, rolled back many democratic gains.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was sentenced in June to 19 months imprisonment after failing to hand over his mobile phone to investigators. He had been arrested in February on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed earlier had been given a 13-year sentence after a widely criticized trial but won asylum in Britain.
Palu, Sep 30 (AP/UNB) — Rescuers struggled Sunday to reach victims in several large coastal towns in Indonesia that were hit by an earthquake and tsunami, and authorities feared that the toll of more than 800 confirmed dead would rise.
With the area largely cut off by damaged roads and downed communications lines, military and commercial aircraft were delivering some aid and supplies to the hard-hit city of Palu on the island of Sulawesi, and others in the region.
But there was a desperate need for heavy equipment to reach possible survivors buried in collapsed buildings, including an eight-story hotel in Palu where voices were heard in the rubble. A 25-year-old woman was found alive during the evening in the ruins of the Roa-Roa Hotel, according to the National Search and Rescue Agency, which released photos of the her lying on a stretcher covered in a blanket.
At least 832 people were confirmed killed by the quake and tsunami that struck Friday evening, Indonesia's disaster agency said, with nearly all of those from Palu. The regencies of Donggala, Sigi and Parigi Moutong — with a combined population of 1.2 million — had yet to be fully assessed.
"The death toll is believed to be still increasing, since many bodies were still under the wreckage, while many have not been reached," said disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
Bodies covered in blue and yellow tarps lined the streets of Palu, and officials said they were digging a mass grave for at least 300 of the dead.
It was not immediately known when the burial would take place, but "this must be done as soon as possible for health and religious reasons," said Willem Rampangilei, head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency. Most of Palu's residents are Muslim.
The cries from beneath the Roa-Roa Hotel, which appeared to have toppled over with its walls splintered like pickup sticks, went silent by Sunday afternoon. Officials had estimated about 50 people could be inside.
"We are trying our best. Time is so important here to save people," said Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national search and rescue team. "Heavy equipment is on the way."
Metro TV showed about a dozen rescuers in orange jumpsuits climbing over debris with a stretcher carrying the body of a victim from the modest business hotel.
Other rescuers worked to free a 15-year-old girl trapped under concrete in her house in Palu after it collapsed on her family during the magnitude 7.5 earthquake that spawned a tsunami.
Unable to move her legs under the rubble, Nurul Istikharah was trapped beside her dead mother and niece. Rescuers also tried to control water from a leaking pipe, fearing she would drown.
Istikharah was unconscious during part of the effort to free her, but rescuers kept talking to her to try to keep her awake. Others offered her food and water.
Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo toured Palu on Sunday and said rescuers were having difficulty reaching victims because of a shortage of heavy equipment.
"There are many challenges," Jokowi said. "We have to do many things soon, but conditions do not allow us to do so."
He said authorities were deploying more heavy machinery so emergency workers can help recover more victims Monday.
The stricken areas also needed medical supplies, fuel, fresh water and experts.
It was the latest natural disaster to hit Indonesia, which is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. In December 2004, a massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island in western Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries. More recently, a powerful quake on the island of Lombok killed 505 people in August.
In Donggala, the site closest to the epicenter of Friday's earthquake, aerial footage on Metro TV showed the sugary blond sands of beaches swept out to sea, along with some buildings. Some buildings in the town were severely damaged, with plywood walls shredded and chunks of concrete scattered on the pavement. Much of the damage, however, appeared limited to the waterfront.
Palu, which has more than 380,000 people, was strewn with debris from the earthquake and tsunami. A heavily damaged mosque was half submerged and a shopping mall was reduced to a crumpled hulk. A large bridge with yellow arches had collapsed.
The city is built around a narrow bay that apparently magnified the force of the tsunami as the waves raced into the tight inlet. Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman, said waves were reported as high as 6 meters (20 feet) in some places.
Looters hit a badly damaged shopping mall, apparently unconcerned for their safety amid ongoing aftershocks and the structure's questionable stability.
In one devastated area in Palu, residents said dozens of people could still be buried in their homes.
"The ground rose up like a spine and suddenly fell. Many people were trapped and buried under collapsed houses. I could do nothing to help," resident Nur Indah said, crying. "In the evening, some of them turned on their cellphones just to give a sign that they were there. But the lights were off later and the next day."
With hundreds injured, earthquake-damaged hospitals were overwhelmed.
Nugroho said 61 foreigners were in Palu at the time of the disaster. Most were accounted for, but one South Korean was believed to be trapped in the Roa-Roa Hotel, while three others from France and one from Malaysia were missing. The survivors were to be evacuated to the Sulawesi city of Makassar in the island's far south.
Communications with the area were difficult because power and telecommunications were cut, hampering rescue efforts. Most people have slept outdoors, fearing strong aftershocks.
Indonesia is a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands that span a distance that would stretch from New York to London. It is home to 260 million people. Roads and infrastructure are poor in many areas, making access difficult in the best of conditions.
The disaster agency has said that essential aircraft can land at Palu's airport, though AirNav, which oversees aircraft navigation, said the runway was cracked and the control tower damaged.
Sulawesi has a history of religious tensions between Muslims and Christians, with violent riots erupting in the town of Poso, not far from Palu, two decades ago. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country.
Dhaka, Sept 30 (UNB) - Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said Malaysia will no longer support the leadership of Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi because of her handling of the Rohingya crisis in her country.
In an interview with Turkish international news channel TRT World, Dr Mahathir said Suu Kyi seemed to be a ‘changed person’ in over the plight of the Rohingya people, Malaysia’s The Star Online reported on Sunday.
"Over this issue, she seems to be a changed person. She didn’t want to say anything against the action taken by the military against the Rohingyas. So, we make (it) quite clear that we don't really support her anymore," he told host Ghida Fakhry.
Dr Mahathir also admitted that he had lost all faith in her.
He, however, said when he had recently written to Suu Kyi, he did not even receive a reply from her, and thus felt ‘very disappointed’.
"We’ve complained about the treatment of the Rohingyas to the world. In fact, we’ve ourselves received quite a lot of Rohingya people in our country," he said.
Dr Mahathir, currently in New York, addressed the UN General Assembly on Friday (Sept 28) on the state of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
He criticised the authorities in Myanmar and Suu Kyi for denying that the Rohingya people were being murdered, and their homes torched, forcing over a million refugees to flee.
Dr Mahathir also questioned the world for staying mum on the massacres that were carried out.
Earlier, United Nations investigators said that Myanmar's military carried out mass killings and gang-rapes of Rohingya with ‘genocidal intent’, and that its commander-in-chief and five generals should be prosecuted under the international law.
Suu Kyi has also been heavily criticised for her failure to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya by her country's military.
She earlier said in hindsight, her government ‘could have handled it better’, referring to the Rohingya situation with a lame understatement.
There have been calls to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991. Canada has also revoked Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship over the Rohingya crisis.
A United Nations report last month called for the army chief’s prosecution for genocide against the Rohingya and singled out Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to speak up for the group. Facebook also took down the accounts of several army generals.
However, many people within the Buddhist-majority country see the issue through the lens of ethnic and religious sentiments, which had been worsened through a revised version of ‘national history’.
They have been influenced by years of rhetoric to be suspicious of Muslims and some regard the military action against the Rohingya as an operation against ‘terrorists’.