Washington, Nov 17 (AP/UNB) — U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. official said. The Saudi government has denied the claim.
The conclusion will bolster efforts in Congress to further punish the close U.S. ally for the killing. The Trump administration this past week penalized 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, but American lawmakers have called on the administration to curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia or take other harsher punitive measures.
The U.S. official familiar with the intelligence agencies' conclusion was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke only condition of anonymity Friday. The conclusion was first reported by The Washington Post.
Saudi Arabia's top diplomat has said the crown prince had "absolutely" nothing to do with the killing.
Vice President Mike Pence told reporters traveling with him at a summit of Pacific Rim nations in Papua New Guinea that he could not comment on "classified information." He said Saturday "the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an atrocity. It was also an affront to a free and independent press, and the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder."
The United States will "follow the facts," Pence said, while trying to find a way of preserving a "strong and historic partnership" with Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi, a Saudi who lived in the United States, was a columnist for the Post and often criticized the royal family. He was killed Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish and Saudi authorities say he was killed inside the consulate by a team from the kingdom after he went there to get marriage documents.
This past week, U.S. intelligence officials briefed members of the Senate and House intelligence committees and the Treasury Department announced economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the killing.
Among those targeted for sanctions were Mohammed al-Otaibi, the diplomat in charge of the consulate, and Maher Mutreb, who was part of the crown prince's entourage on trips abroad.
The sanctions freeze any assets the 17 may have in the U.S. and prohibit any Americans from doing business with them.
Also this past week, the top prosecutor in Saudi Arabia announced he will seek the death penalty against five men suspected in the killing. The prosecutor's announcement sought to quiet the global outcry over Khashoggi's death and distance the killers and their operation from the kingdom's leadership, primarily the crown prince.
President Donald Trump has called the killing a botched operation that was carried out very poorly and has said "the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups."
But he has resisted calls to cut off arms sales to the kingdom and has been reluctant to antagonize the Saudi rulers. Trump considers the Saudis vital allies in his Mideast agenda.
The Post, citing unnamed sources, also reported that U.S. intelligence agencies reviewed a phone call that the prince's brother, Khalid bin Salman, had with Khashoggi. The newspaper said the prince's brother, who is the current Saudi ambassador to the United States, told Khashoggi he would be safe in going to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents he needed to get married.
The newspaper said it was not known whether the ambassador knew Khashoggi would be killed. But it said he made the call at the direction the crown prince, and the call was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
Fatimah Baeshen, a spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said that claim was false.
She said in a statement issued to The Associated Press that the ambassador met Khashoggi in person once in late September 2017. After that, they communicated via text messages, she said. The last text message the ambassador sent to Khashoggi was on Oct. 26, 2017, she said.
Baeshen said the ambassador did not discuss with Khashoggi "anything related to going to Turkey."
"Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman has never had any phone conversations with him," she said.
"You are welcome to check the phone records and cell phone content to corroborate this — in which case, you would have to request it from Turkish authorities," Baeshen said, adding that Saudi prosecutors have checked the phone records numerous times to no avail.
The ambassador himself tweeted: "The last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct. 26, 2017. I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the U.S. government to release any information regarding this claim."
Tehran, Nov 17 (AP/UNB) — Iraq's President Barham Salih began a visit to Iran on Saturday, where he pledged to improve relations less than two weeks after the United States restored oil sanctions that had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran, which has had major influence over Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is hoping to maintain exports to its neighbor despite the renewed sanctions. Iraq is Iran's second-largest market after China, buying everything from food and machinery to electricity and natural gas.
At a joint briefing after their meeting, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said they discussed increasing trade in electricity and oil products and the establishment of free trade zones along the border. He said they also discussed joint oil projects and improving transport links between the two countries.
Trade between the two countries was some $7 billion in 2017, and they have vowed to boost it to $8.5 billion this year. Rouhani said it could eventually reach $20 billion a year.
Salih also pledged to improve ties, and suggested the formation of a "new regional system" including Iraq and Iran, one based on "political integrity, national interests and cooperation between nations and governments." He did not elaborate.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May. United Nations monitors say Iran still abides by the deal, in which it agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
Since then, Trump announced what he billed as the "toughest ever" sanctions against Iran, and the country has seen its oil exports plunge and its currency lose more than half its value. The full brunt of the measures came into effect Nov. 5 when the U.S. re-imposed oil and banking sanctions.
The U.S., which provided crucial military support to Iraq in its battle against the Islamic State group, has granted Iraq a 45-day waiver to allow it to continue to purchase gas and electricity from Iran.
Salih said Iraq should not be "a field for struggle between conflicting demands and wills."
United Nations, Nov 16 (AP/UNB) — A U.N. committee on human rights approved a resolution Thursday urging Iran to stop its widespread use of arbitrary detention and expressing serious concern at its "alarmingly high" use of the death penalty.
The General Assembly's Human Rights Committee adopted the resolution by a vote of 85-30, with 68 abstentions. It is virtually certain to be approved by the 193-member world body next month.
The resolution "strongly urges" Iran to eliminate discrimination against women in law and practice and expresses "serious concern about ongoing severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief."
It singles out violations including harassment, intimidation and persecution against religious minorities including Christians, Gonabadi Dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha'i faith — and urges the release of religious practitioners including Baha'i leaders.
The resolution, sponsored by Canada, also calls on Iran to end "widespread and serious restrictions" including on freedom of assembly of political opponents, human rights defenders, labor leaders, environmentalists, academics, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, social media users and others.
While the resolution welcomes the elimination of the death penalty for some drug-related offenses, it expresses serious concern at the "alarmingly high frequency" of Iran's use of the death penalty, including against minors.
Iran's deputy U.N. ambassador, Eshagh Al Habib, dismissed the resolution as a "political charade," saying promoting the human rights of Iranians "is not simply a legal and moral responsibility, but a paramount requirement of national security."
"Similar to any other country, deficiencies may exist, and we are determined to address them," he said. "However, it is not for those who traditionally, historically and practically supported colonialism, slavery, racism and apartheid to lecture Iranians on human rights."
Alluding to the resolution's sponsor and more than 30 co-sponsors, including the United States, Al Habib said that threatening cuts in financial and development funds to get votes "further exposes the dishonesty of these self-assured champions of human rights."
Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi of Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran, said, "The Iranian people continue to suffer under a regime that does not respect human rights, that denies freedoms, that persecutes religious and racial minorities." He called on Iran not "give shelter to terrorists."
Jerusalem, Nov 14 (AP/UNB) — The Israeli military said it shot and captured a Palestinian who approached the Gaza perimeter fence and hurled grenades into Israel on Wednesday, in the first confrontation since Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza accepted an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire to end two days of intense fighting that had pushed the sides to the brink of another war.
The military said it spotted the assailant with a knife and wire cutters and took him into custody after the grenades he hurled failed to explode.
The frontier was quiet overnight after the most intense round of fighting since a 50-day war in 2014. Palestinian militants fired 460 rockets and mortars into Israel in a 24-hour period, while the Israeli military carried out airstrikes on 160 Gaza targets. Seven Palestinians, including five militants, were killed. In Israel, one person was killed in a rocket strike and three were critically wounded.
With air raid sirens wailing throughout southern Israel and the explosions of airstrikes thundering in Gaza, the two sides had appeared to be on the verge of their fourth war in a decade. Instead, Gaza's Hamas rulers abruptly announced a cease-fire and Israel's Security Cabinet ended a seven-hour discussion with an apparent decision to hold its fire.
The news was greeted with celebrations in Gaza, with Hamas declaring victory in the latest round of violence, which was triggered by a botched Israeli raid on Sunday that left seven Palestinian militants and a senior Israeli military officer dead.
Hamas has staged near-weekly border protests since March in an effort to lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the Islamic militant group seized control of the coastal strip in 2007. The blockade has ravaged Gaza's economy, and Israel refuses to lift it unless Hamas disarms, a demand rejected by militant group, which is pledged to Israel's destruction.
Demonstrators each week have approach the border fence, throwing firebombs, grenades and burning tires at Israeli troops. Israeli snipers have killed about 170 people, most of them unarmed. Israel says it is defending its border against attackers, but it has come under heavy international criticism for shooting unarmed people.
Before Sunday's raid, Egyptian and U.N. mediators had made progress in reducing tensions. In recent days, Israel had allowed fuel shipments to increase the power supply in Gaza, which suffers from frequent blackouts, and agreed to additional Qatari assistance to allow Hamas to pay the salaries of its thousands of government workers.
The standoff has produced repeated rounds of violence in recent years, including indiscriminate Gaza rocket fire at Israeli towns and cities and punishing Israeli military offensives, but Hamas remains firmly in control. Both sides appear reluctant to launch a full-scale war.
In southern Israel, news of the cease-fire was greeted with anger as dozens of protesters in the rocket-battered town of Sderot chanted "Disgrace!" at what they saw as the government's capitulation to violence and its inability to provide them with safety. Recent months have seen sporadic rocket attacks as well as militant infiltration attempts and a wave of incendiary kites that have destroyed Israeli crops.
"We are third-class citizens here in Sderot and the communities on the border with Gaza," complained David Maimon, a local resident. "It's a shame. Instead of helping us and letting us live quietly, they let us suffer."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the decision to step back from a full-blown conflict as a unified one made by his Security Cabinet and based on the military's recommendations. But two of the Security Cabinet's more hard-line members, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, later expressed reservations, saying they favored a stronger response.
Lieberman is scheduled to deliver a statement later Wednesday.
Netanyahu defended his actions.
"I see the big picture of Israeli security that I cannot share with the public," he said. "Our enemies begged for a cease-fire and they know well why. I cannot detail our plans for the future. We will dictate the time and circumstances that are right for Israel and are right for the security of our people."
The current round of violence began when an Israeli commando unit on an undercover mission was caught behind enemy lines in Gaza by Hamas militants, setting off a deadly battle late Sunday. Hamas and other militant groups responded with a wave of rocket attacks the following day.
The Israeli military said its jets struck several "key strategic" Hamas targets in response, including military compounds, rocket launching posts and part of its vast underground tunnel network. Also targeted were Hamas' TV station and a Gaza City building serving Hamas' military and intelligence forces that houses a munitions warehouse.
Jerusalem, Nov 13 (AP/UNB) — Gaza militants fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel early on Tuesday, killing a man in a strike on a residential building, and warning they would escalate their attacks if Israel continues bombing targets in the Gaza Strip.
The cross-border attacks, which were triggered by a botched Israeli undercover raid into Hamas-ruled Gaza over the weekend, marked the most serious escalation since an Israel-Hamas war in 2014.
International mediators appealed for restraint, hoping to avert another war.
The Israeli military said some 400 rockets and mortars been launched from Gaza since the current round began on Monday afternoon, with about 100 of them intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system.
Israel has hit more than 100 targets it says are linked to militants in Gaza, including a strike that destroyed the TV station of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. Palestinian officials say at least three people, including two militants, have been killed. In Israel, at least 20 people have been wounded, several seriously.
The armed wing of Hamas threatened to step up its attacks and fire rockets further north toward the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Beersheba if Israel continued its airstrikes.
The spokesman for the Hamas military wing, identified only as Abu Obeida, said the deadly attack on the coastal city of Ashkelon showed the city "has entered the range of fire as a response to the bombing of buildings in Gaza." He said Ashdod and Beersheba "are the next targets if the enemy continues bombing civilian buildings."
School has been cancelled in large parts of southern Israel and local election postponed because of the threat of further attacks.
Over the past few months, the sides have come close to a major escalation several times, only to step back in favor of giving a chance to a long-term Egyptian mediated truce.
However, the current level of escalation and angry rhetoric, including Hamas' warnings to strike deeper inside Israel, might make it more difficult to restore calm.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli security Cabinet began meeting to discuss the next steps, as the United Nations appealed for calm.
The deadly rocket strike came before dawn in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. The Magen David Adom medical service said a man in his 40s was found dead under the rubble of a building in Ashkelon.
He was the first casualty in Israel from the current wave. The man was later identified as a man from Hebron, the West Bank's largest Palestinian city.
The eruption of fighting cast doubt over recent understandings brokered by Egypt and U.N. officials to reduce tensions. Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had defended those understandings, saying he was doing everything possible to avoid another war. But he will now be under intense pressure to retaliate given Hamas' unrelenting rocket barrages.
The rocket fire was triggered by a botched Israeli military raid in Gaza on Sunday. Undercover troops, apparently on a reconnaissance mission, were discovered inside Gaza, setting off a battle that left seven militants, including a Hamas commander, and a senior Israeli military officer dead. Hamas then fired a guided missile that struck a bus from which soldiers had just disembarked, marking an upgrade over its typical inaccurate projectiles.
The strike set the bus on fire, sending a large plume of black smoke over the area. A 19-year-old soldier was critically wounded and rocket attacks and Israeli retaliation fire quickly ensued.
The airstrikes and rocket barrages resumed at dawn Tuesday after nearly two hours of calm.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israeli warplanes, tanks and naval vessels were involved in strikes against military compounds, observation posts and weapons facilities belonging to the two main Gaza militant groups behind the attacks — Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
He said the Israeli military has enhanced its deployment along the border but had yet to mobilize its reserves. He said Gaza militant groups were believed to have an arsenal in excess of 20,000 rockets and mortars of different caliber and range.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. In the most recent war, over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, more than half of them civilians, and tens of thousands were left homeless. Seventy-three people, most of them soldiers, were killed on the Israeli side.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade on Gaza since the Hamas takeover. The blockade has devastated Gaza's economy.
In recent weeks, Egyptian and U.N. mediators had appeared to make progress in brokering informal understandings aimed at quieting the situation.
Last week, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver $15 million to Gaza to allow cash-strapped Hamas to pay the salaries of thousands of government workers. At the same time, Hamas has lowered the intensity of its border protests in recent weeks.
Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris because of the flare-up and returned to Israel on Monday for consultations with top security officials.