Caracas, Jan 30 (AP/UNB) — Opposition leader Juan Guaido is looking to ratchet up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro with walkouts across Venezuela on Wednesday, just a day after the embattled socialist administration barred Guaido from leaving the country while he is investigated for anti-government activities.
The man challenging Maduro's claim to the presidency is urging Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours beginning at noon in the first mass mobilization since he declared himself the nation's rightful leader a week ago during another round of big protests.
"Venezuela is set on change," Guaido said.
The surge in political maneuvering has seen two dozen nations, including the United States and several big Latin American countries, back Guaido, and the Trump administration has imposed sanctions that could starve the already distressed nation of billions in oil revenue.
But Maduro is holding firm in refusing to step down. He oversaw military exercises in recent days while seeking to consolidate support from the armed forces and he is accusing Washington of staging a coup.
In an interview with Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday, Maduro said he was "willing to sit down for talks with the opposition for the sake of Venezuela's peace and its future." Maduro said the talks could be held with mediation of other countries. Russia is one of the staunchest supporters of Maduro and has offered to mediate.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court barred Guaido from leaving the country after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced that he was opening a criminal investigation of Maduro's foe, who heads the opposition-controlled congress. Saab is a key Maduro ally and the high court is stacked with Maduro loyalists.
"Once more we'll come out victorious," Maduro, dressed in a green cap and shirt, said Tuesday while standing before rows of troops. "We are on the right side of history."
The court move came after U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned that the Maduro government would face "serious consequences" if Guaido is harmed.
Guaido has thus far managed to avoid arrest and the Supreme Court did not strip him of his legislative immunity, though the new investigation could signal that Maduro's administration is moving to take a more punitive approach.
Speaking Tuesday outside the National Assembly, Guaido said he was aware of personal risks.
"I don't underestimate the threat of persecution at the moment, but here we are," he said.
The U.S. has emerged as Guaido's most powerful ally, announcing on Tuesday that it was giving him control of Venezuela's U.S. bank accounts.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Guaido has the authority to take control of any Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or any other U.S.-insured banks. He said the certification would "help Venezuela's legitimate government safeguard those assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people."
On Monday, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, that could potentially depriving the Maduro government of $11 billion in export revenues over the next year.
Venezuela's economy is already ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread food and medical shortages that have driven millions of people to leave the country.
Maduro called the sanctions "criminal" and vowed to challenge the U.S. in court. "With these measures, they intend to rob us," he said.
Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after Guaido during a huge opposition rally in Caracas declared that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro's "dictatorship."
Under Venezuela's constitution, the head of the National Assembly is empowered to take on the duties of the chief executive under a range of circumstances in which the presidency is vacated. The opposition argues Maduro's re-election last May was a sham.
The previously little-known Guaido has re-invigorated the opposition movement by pushing for three immediate goals: to end Maduro's "usurpation" of power, establish a transitional government and hold a new presidential election.
The U.S. State Department is telling Americans not to travel to Venezuela, warning of the threat of being arbitrarily arrested or caught in a protest. Venezuela was put on the highest U.S. level advisory, a list that also includes Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.N. human rights office says security forces in Venezuela detained nearly 700 people in just one day of anti-government protests last week — the highest such tally in a single day in the country in at least 20 years. It says more than 40 people are believed to have been killed.
Maduro's allies blame the opposition for the violence and deny the high death toll as well as reports that minors were among those arrested.
Socialist party leaders have been organizing counter-protests by thousands of Maduro supporters in different parts of the country.
On Tuesday, Maduro announced he is expanding Venezuela's civilian armed militia to 2 million members. The reserve force was created by the late Hugo Chavez to train civilians to assist the armed forces and defend the socialist revolution from attacks.
Maduro vowed never to let the U.S. intervene in Venezuela's affairs.
"These are moment of history — and battle," he said.
Washington, Jan 30 (AP/UNB) — Directly contradicting President Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies told Congress on Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, that the Islamic State group remains a threat and that the Iran nuclear deal is working. The chiefs made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border for which Trump has considered declaring a national emergency.
Their analysis stands in sharp contrast to Trump's almost singular focus on security gaps at the border as the biggest threat facing the United States.
Top security officials including FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats presented an update to the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday on their annual assessment of global threats. They warned of an increasingly diverse range of security dangers around the globe, from North Korean nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage to Russian campaigns to undermine Western democracies.
Coats said intelligence information does not support the idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will eliminate his nuclear weapons and the capacity for building more — a notion that is the basis of the U.S. negotiating strategy.
"We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival," Coats told the committee.
Coats did note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed support for ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and over the past year has not test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test.
The "Worldwide Threat Assessment" report on which Coats based his testimony said U.S. intelligence continues to "observe activity inconsistent with" full nuclear disarmament by the North. "In addition, North Korea has for years underscored its commitment to nuclear arms, including through an order in 2018 to mass-produce weapons and an earlier law — and constitutional change — affirming the country's nuclear status," it said.
The report said Kim's support at his June 2018 Singapore summit with Trump for "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" is a formulation linked to an end to American military deployments and exercises involving nuclear weapons.
Trump asserted after the Singapore summit that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat. However, Coats and other intelligence officials made clear they see it differently.
"The capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there," said Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Plans for a follow-up Trump-Kim summit are in the works, but no agenda, venue or date has been announced.
More broadly, the intelligence report on which Coats and the heads of other intelligence agencies based their testimony predicted that security threats to the United States and its allies this year will expand and diversify, driven in part by China and Russia. It says Moscow and Beijing are more aligned than at any other point since the mid-1950s and their global influence is rising even as U.S. relations with traditional allies are in flux.
"Some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perception of changing U.S. policies on security and trade," the report said, without providing examples or further explanation.
The report also said the Islamic State group "remains a terrorist and insurgent threat" inside Iraq, where the government faces "an increasingly disenchanted public."
The intelligence assessment, which is provided annually to Congress, made no mention of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump has asserted as the basis for his demand that Congress finance a border wall. The report predicted additional U.S.-bound migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with migrants preferring to travel in caravans in hopes of a safer journey.
In Syria, where Trump has ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops, the government of Bashar Assad is likely to consolidate control, with Russia and Iran attempting to further entrench themselves in Syria, the report said. Asked for her assessment, Haspel said of the IS group: "They're still dangerous." She added that they still command "thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria."
The intelligence agencies said Iran continues to work with other parties to the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other Western nations. In doing so, they said, it has at least temporarily lessened the nuclear threat. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from that accord, which he called a terrible deal that would not stop Iran from going nuclear.
The intelligence assessment of Afghanistan, more than 17 years into a conflict that began after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., projected a continued military stalemate. Without mentioning prospects for a peace deal, which appear to have improved only in recent days, the report said, "neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in the Afghan war in the coming year" if the U.S. maintains its current levels of support. Trump has ordered a partial pullback of U.S. forces this year, although no firm plan is in place.
Coats told the committee that Russia and perhaps other countries are likely to attempt to use social media and other means to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
"We expect our adversaries and strategic competitors to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other's experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections," the intelligence report said.
The report specifically warned about Russia's cyberattack capabilities.
"Moscow is now staging cyberattack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage U.S. civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis," it said.
Washington, Jan 29 (AP/UNB) — The Justice Department unsealed criminal charges Monday against Chinese tech giant Huawei, a top company executive and several subsidiaries, alleging the company stole trade secrets, misled banks about its business and violated U.S. sanctions.
The charges were announced just before a crucial two-day round of trade talks between the United States and China are scheduled to begin in Washington. Trade analysts say they could dim prospects for a breakthrough.
The sweeping indictments accuse the company of using extreme efforts to steal trade secrets from American businesses — including trying to take a piece of a robot from a T-Mobile lab.
The executive charged is Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada last month. The U.S. is seeking to extradite her, alleging she committed fraud by misleading banks about Huawei's business dealings in Iran.
David Martin, Meng's lawyer in Canada, didn't immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Meng is out on bail in Vancouver and her case is due back in court Tuesday as she awaits extradition proceedings to begin.
Huawei is the world's biggest supplier of network gear used by phone and internet companies and has long been seen as a front for spying by the Chinese military or security services. A spokesman did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.
The Justice Department charges that Huawei used a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment in Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. Huawei had done business in Iran through a Hong Kong company called Skycom and alleged that Meng misled U.S. banks into believing the two companies were separate, according to prosecutors.
"As I told high-level Chinese law enforcement officials in August, we need more law enforcement cooperation with China," acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker said at a news conference with other Cabinet officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. "China should be concerned about criminal activities by Chinese companies — and China should take action."
The officials provided details from a 10-count grand jury indictment in Seattle, and a separate 13-count case from prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York.
Among the accusations, prosecutors say Huawei stole trade secrets, including the technology behind a robotic device that T-Mobile used to test smartphones.
Beginning in 2012, Huawei hatched a plan to steal information about T-Mobile's robot, named "Tappy," and Huawei engineers secretly took photos of the robot, measured it and tried to steal a piece of it from T-Mobile's lab in Washington state, according to prosecutors. T-Mobile declined to comment.
The Huawei case has set off diplomatic spats among the United States, China and Canada. President Donald Trump said he would get involved in the Huawei case if it would help produce a trade agreement with China. But Ross said Monday that the indictments are "wholly separate from our trade negotiations with China."
The two countries agreed Dec. 1 to negotiate for 90 days in an effort to defuse worsening trade tensions. Trump has postponed a scheduled increase in U.S. tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent during the talks. A breakdown in negotiations would likely lead to higher tariffs, a prospect that has rattled financial markets for months.
Monday's announcement of criminal charges "is certainly not a propitious sign for U.S.-China trade tensions and could hamper prospects for even a partial deal in the coming weeks," said Eswar Prasad, an economics professor and China expert at Cornell University.
There is no allegation Huawei was working at the direction of the Chinese government. In past instances, the U.S. government has singled out Beijing in corporate or digital espionage and has recently charged several Chinese hackers and intelligence officials.
The arrest of Meng, the daughter of Huawei's founder at Vancouver's airport, has led to the worst relations between Canada and China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. China detained two Canadians shortly after Meng's arrest in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release her. A Chinese court also sentenced a third Canadian to death in a sudden retrial of a drug case, overturning a 15-year prison term handed down earlier.
Houston, Jan 29 (AP/UNB) — Houston's police chief says two suspects are dead after a shooting that injured five officers, including four who were hit by gunfire.
Chief Art Acevedo says the suspects were killed after firing at officers serving a search warrant at a southeast Houston home where authorities allege black tar heroin was being sold.
Four of the officers were shot and a fifth suffered a knee injury.
Acevedo says two of the officers who were shot were hit in the neck by gunfire and are in critical but stable condition.
The other three officers are in stable condition and are expected to make a full recovery.
Acevedo didn't immediately have additional information about the suspects.
Acevedo says the officers came under fire just after forcing open the home's front door.
The head of the union for Houston police officers says the five officers injured in a shooting are in critical and stable condition.
Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, says in a tweet that two officers are in critical condition and the other three are in stable condition.
The officers were taken to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston.
Gamaldi says one of the injured officers was taken to the hospital by helicopter.
Houston police say in a tweet that a suspect is dead at the scene.
Police say the officers were injured "following an encounter with a suspect" Monday afternoon in a neighborhood in southeast Houston.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Mayor Sylvester Turner were scheduled to hold a news conference on the shooting Monday evening.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has pledged any state resources needed for Houston police "to bring swift justice to those involved" in the shooting of five Houston police officers.
The five were shot and wounded during an encounter with a suspect Monday afternoon in a southeast Houston neighborhood. All five were taken to a Houston hospital but their conditions haven't been released.
In a statement, Abbott called the attack "horrific" and "a solemn reminder of the service and sacrifice" law enforcement officers make daily.
Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that one suspect "is down." Aerial video showed police tactical squad resources have been deployed outside the house where the shooting happened.
Houston police say five officers have been struck in a shooting and have been taken to a local hospital.
In a tweet, Houston police say the officers were "struck with gunfire following an encounter with a suspect" Monday afternoon in a neighborhood in southeast Houston.
Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that the suspect "is down." Additional information on the suspect was not immediately available.
Turner was seen Monday evening entering the hospital where the injured officers were taken.
Their conditions were not immediately known.
Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, says one of the injured officers was taken to the hospital by helicopter.
Officials say at least three Houston police officers have been wounded in a shooting.
In a tweet, Houston police say the officers were "struck with gunfire following an encounter with a suspect" Monday afternoon in a neighborhood in southeast Houston.
Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that the suspect "is down" and at least three officers have been injured.
Police say the officers are being transported to a hospital. Their conditions were not immediately known.
Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, says one of the injured officers was taken to a hospital by helicopter.
Washington, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said the odds congressional negotiators will craft a deal to end his border wall standoff with Congress are "less than 50-50."
As hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers prepared to return to work, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he doesn't think the negotiators will strike a deal that he'd accept. He pledged to build a wall anyway using his executive powers to declare a national emergency if necessary.
"I personally think it's less than 50-50, but you have a lot of very good people on that board," Trump said in an interview Sunday with the newspaper.
The president was referring to a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers that will consider border spending as part of the legislative process.
The president's standoff with Democrats on Capitol Hill is far from over and the clock is ticking. The spending bill Trump signed on Friday to temporarily end the partial government shutdown funds the shuttered agencies only until Feb. 15.
It's unclear if the Democrats will budge. Trump seemed girded for battle over the weekend, sending out a series of online messages that foreshadowed the upcoming fight with lawmakers. "BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!" he tweeted.
Is Trump prepared to shut down the government again in three weeks?
"Yeah, I think he actually is," acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said. "He doesn't want to shut the government down, let's make that very clear. He doesn't want to declare a national emergency."
But Mulvaney said that at "the end of the day, the president's commitment is to defend the nation and he will do it with or without Congress."
The linchpin in the standoff is Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his prized wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, a project Democrats consider an ineffective, wasteful monument to a ridiculous Trump campaign promise.
Asked if he'd willing to accept less than $5.7 billion to build a barrier on the southern border, Trump replied: "I doubt it." He added: "I have to do it right."
He also said he'd be wary of any proposed deal that exchanged funds for a wall for broad immigration reform. And when asked if he would agree to citizenship for immigrants who were illegally brought into the U.S. as children, he again replied, "I doubt it."
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the leading Republican in the House, said Democrats have funded border barriers in the past and are refusing this time simply because Trump is asking for it.
"The president is the only one who has been reasonable in these negotiations," he said.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House, said his colleagues are looking for "evidence-based" legislation.
"Shutdowns are not legitimate negotiating tactics when there's a public policy disagreement between two branches of government," he said.
Jeffries said that Democrats are willing to invest in additional infrastructure, especially at legal ports of entry where the majority of drugs come into the country.
"We're willing to invest in personnel. We're willing to invest in additional technology. ... In the past, we have supported enhanced fencing and I think that's something that's reasonable that should be on the table," he said.
Trump has asserted there is a "crisis" at the southern border requiring a wall, blaming previous presidents and Congress for failing to overhaul an immigration system that has allowed millions of people to live in the U.S. illegally.
Last month, he put that number at 35 million, while on Sunday he pegged it at 25.7 million-plus — figures offered without evidence. "I'm not exactly sure where the president got that number this morning," Mulvaney said.
Both are higher than government and private estimates.
His homeland security chief cited "somewhere" between 11 million and 22 million last month. In November, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported 10.7 million in 2016 — the lowest in a decade.
The president also tweeted Sunday that the cost of illegal immigration so far this year was nearly $19 billion; he didn't cite a source.
Compare that with research in 2017 from a conservative group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less immigration: $135 billion a year or about $11.25 billion a month — a figure that included health care and education, plus money spent on immigration enforcement.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. said that he thinks a compromise is possible.
"The president went from talking about a wall along the entire southern border at one point during the campaign ... to let's have barriers where they work and let's have something else where barriers wouldn't work as well," Blunt said.
The partial federal shutdown ended Friday when Trump gave in to mounting pressure, retreating from his demand that Congress commit to the border wall funding before federal agencies could resume work. The bill he signed did not provide the money Trump wanted for a barrier, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called "immoral" and has insisted Congress will not finance.
Mulvaney said Trump agreed to temporarily end the shutdown because some Democrats have stepped forward, publicly and privately, to say they agree with Trump's plan to better secure the border.
Mulvaney said they told Trump they couldn't split with Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and work with the White House if the government remained closed.
"Everybody wants to look at this and say the president lost," Mulvaney said. "We're still in the middle of negotiations."