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Archive for February, 2020

Macron vows to keep fighting extremism in West Africa

December 21, 2019

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — France’s President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to boost the fight against Islamic extremism in West Africa as French troops killed 33 Islamic extremists in central Mali. Saturday was Macron’s second day of his three-day trip to Ivory Coast and Niger that has been dominated by the growing threat posed by jihadist groups.

“We must remain determined and united to face that threat,” Macron said in a news conference in Abidjan. “We will continue the fight.” By Macron’s side, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan announced a “historic” reform of the French-backed currency CFA Franc, established in 1945 and used by eight states in West and Central Africa.

The currency’s name will become the “eco” next year and all French officials will withdraw from its decision-making bodies, Ouattara said. In addition, the obligation for member states to keep half of their foreign reserves in France will end.

The currency will remain pegged to the euro, which guarantees its stability, Ouattara stressed. Macron, who turned 42 on Saturday, welcomed the reform and praised the financial and economic empowerment of the region.

“I don’t belong to a generation that has known colonialism … so let’s break the ties!” he said, adding that the currency was considered by some, especially the African youth, as a post-colonial heritage.

Earlier that day, Macron announced that a French military operation killed 33 Islamic extremists in the Mopti region of central Mali on Saturday morning. He tweeted he was “proud of our soldiers who protect us.” Two Malian gendarmes also were rescued in the operation, he said.

France has about 4,500 military personnel in West and Central Africa, much of which was ruled by France during the colonial era. The French led a military operation in 2013 to dislodge Islamic extremists from power in several major towns across Mali’s north.

In the ensuing years, the militants have regrouped and pushed further into central Mali, where Saturday morning’s operation was carried out. On Friday evening, Macron met with French military personnel stationed in Ivory Coast, which shares a long border with volatile Mali and Burkina Faso. The visit included commandos who were involved in the operation in Mali last month during which 13 soldiers died in a helicopter collision.

Earlier Saturday, Macron and Ouattara highlighted a new training effort being launched. The International Academy to Fight Terrorism will be in charge of “training in Ivory Coast some specialized forces from across Africa,” Macron said. “Then we will collectively be better prepared for the fight against terrorism.”

On Sunday, Macron will pay tribute in Bouake to the victims of a 2004 bombing by the Ivorian air force during the civil war in the country, which killed nine French soldiers and an American civilian who had sought shelter at the French army base.

He also will pay a visit to Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou in Niamey before returning to France, where a summit with West African leaders will be held in mid-January to clarify the strategy of the French military operation in the Sahel region.

Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to the story.

S. Korean military decides to discharge transgender soldier

January 22, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s military decided Wednesday to discharge a soldier who recently undertook gender reassignment surgery, a ruling expected to draw strong criticism from human rights groups.

It was the first time in South Korea that an active-duty member has been referred to a military panel to determine whether to end his or her service due to a sex change operation. South Korea prohibits transgender people from joining the military but has no specific laws on what to do with those who have sex change operations during their time in service.

The army said in a statement that it concluded that the soldier’s sex change operation can be considered as a reason for discharge. The statement said the decision went through due process and was based on a related military law on personnel changes. Army officials cited the law’s provision that allows the military to discharge a member with physical and mental disabilities.

The non-commissioned officer had a male-to-female sex operation abroad late last year. The staff sergeant has since been hospitalized at a military-run facility and expressed a desire to continue serving as a female soldier, according to the army.

South Korea’s state-run human rights watchdog recommended Tuesday the army postpone its decision. The National Human Rights Commission said in a statement that referring the soldier to the military panel would be an act of discrimination over sexual identity and affect the soldier’s basic human rights.

Public views on gender issues in South Korea have gradually changed in recent years. Several gay-themed movies and TV dramas have become hits and some transgender entertainers have risen to stardom. However, a strong bias against sexual minorities still runs deep through South Korean society .

Activists say transgender people are likely to face harassment, abuse and insults, and many suffer from depression and have attempted suicide.

N Korean leader holds party meeting to bolster military

December 22, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Sunday leader Kim Jong Un has convened a key ruling party meeting to decide on steps to bolster the country’s military capability. The meeting came amid speculation that the North could abandon diplomacy with the U.S. and launch either a long-range missile or a satellite-carrying rocket if Washington doesn’t accept its demand for new incentives to salvage faltering nuclear negotiations by year’s end.

The Korean Central News Agency said Kim presided over a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party. It didn’t say when it took place. It cited Kim as saying the meeting would determine “important organizational and political measures and military steps to bolster up the overall armed forces … as required by the fast-changing situation and crucial time of the developing Korean revolution.”

According to KCNA, the gathering decided on “important military issues and measures for organizing or expanding and reorganizing new units … (and) changing the affiliation of some units and changing deployment of (others).”

KCNA didn’t elaborate. But South Korean media speculated the meeting might have discussed the restructuring of military units over the deployment of new weapons that the North had test-launched in recent months, and what steps it will take in coming weeks.

North Korea is to hold a higher-level Workers’ Party gathering, a Central Committee meeting, later this month to discuss what it previously described as “crucial issues” in line with “the changed situation at home and abroad.”

In Washington, the White House said President Donald Trump discussed “recent threatening statements” by North Korea in a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders agreed to continue close communication, it said.

Earlier this month, North Korea carried out two major tests at its long-range rocket and missile engine testing site. Experts said they were engine tests that indicate that North might be preparing for a banned satellite launch or an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

The nuclear diplomacy remains stalled since the second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February collapsed after Trump rejected Kim’s calls for broad sanction relief in return for partial disarmament steps.

Taiwan defense officials meet after crash kills top officer

January 03, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen convened a meeting of top defense officials and urged them Friday to be on a lookout for military developments concerning China following a helicopter crash that killed the island’s top military officer and other prominent personnel.

In a tweet, Tsai said the morning conference focused on ensuring military morale, security in and around the Taiwan Strait and the importance of “complete equipment inspections.” The meeting followed the grounding for inspection of Taiwan’s 52 UH-60M Black Hawk choppers belonging to the air force, the army and the National Airborne Service Corps., the agency responsible for search and rescue operations.

Thursday morning’s crash in forested mountains outside the capital Taipei killed eight people, including chief of the general staff Gen. Shen Yi-ming. A former pilot and air force chief, Shen had since July been largely responsible for overseeing the self-governing island’s defense against China.

“The best way for us to honor the memory of the fallen is to ensure Taiwan’s security and maintain military morale,” Tsai wrote. In a video handout from the Presidential Office, Tsai is shown asking officials including the defense minister to “please be vigilant and pay close attention to military developments around the Taiwan Strait.”

“We need to respond quickly to any military deployments to ensure security across the strait,” Tsai said. Others killed in the crash included both pilots, the deputy head of the Political Warfare Bureau and the deputy chief of the General Staff for Intelligence, while two lieutenant generals and a major general were among the five survivors.

Tsai and her two rivals in the Jan. 11 presidential election suspended their campaigns to observe a period of mourning. The crash, which is under investigation, is not expected to affect the holding of the election, which Tsai is highly favored to win, but will require an urgent reshuffling of top military staff. Questions have also been raised as to why so many high-ranking officers were aboard a single flight.

China threatens to use military force if necessary to annex what it considers part of its territory. A vacuum within Taiwan’s military leadership could embolden it to step up its military intimidation.

Shen’s death comes as Taiwan’s military is undergoing a substantial upgrade with the arrival of the most advanced version of the U.S. F-16V fighter jets, along with tanks, missiles and improved military software.

Local media reported that rescuers were able to swiftly arrive at the scene because Chen Ying-chu, a correspondent with the Military News Agency who was on board and survived, sent a series of messages to a chat group reporting the crash and giving the chopper’s location.

Copter crash kills Taiwan’s top military officer, 7 others

January 02, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan’s top military official was among eight people killed in an air force helicopter crash in mountainous terrain outside Taipei on Thursday, the defense ministry said. Five others survived.

As chief of the general staff, Gen. Shen Yi-ming was responsible for overseeing the self-governing island’s defense against China, which threatens to use military force if necessary to annex what it considers part of its territory.

The helicopter was flying from Taipei to the nearby city of Yilan for a New Year’s activity when it crashed. The victims included other senior military officials and the two pilots. The UH-60M Blackhawk with 13 people on board dropped from the radar screen 10 minutes after takeoff from Songshan air force base around 7:50 a.m., Taiwan’s defense ministry said. It went down in the mountainous, heavily forested Wulai area southeast of the capital.

Shen, 63, had taken over as chief of the general staff in July after serving as commander of Taiwan’s air force, which is undergoing a substantial upgrade with the arrival of the most advanced version of the U.S. F-16V fighter.

Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan who had known Shen for a decade, said he had stood out as a pilot and an officer. “He was very calm and very stable and unlike other army guys he was always smiling, so he got a specific leadership style that also made him a popular leader in the entire military,” Huang said.

It will likely be months before the cause of the crash is known, but the pilots appeared to have been highly experienced. “Of course, reasonable people would think in the direction of mechanical failure or maintenance problem, but without proof you can’t say anything,” Huang said.

A special government committee will look into the cause of the crash, a defense ministry statement said. Taiwan’s military has operated Blackhawk helicopters for decades and completed a sale for another 60 UH-Ms from the U.S. for $3.1 billion in 2010. The one that crashed was a model dedicated to search and rescue and had been delivered in 2018, according to the ministry.

The loss of Shen and other high-ranking officials will require a rapid reshuffle of positions, but should have minimal effect on Taiwan’s Jan. 11 elections for president and lawmakers, said Andrew Yang, a former deputy defense minister who said Shen was highly respected throughout his career.

“I don’t think the crash will have a strong impact over the elections but certainly it will affect the armed forces because so many senior officers passed away as a result of this crash,” he said. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party said in a statement on social media that all its public campaign events from now through Saturday would be canceled.

“The loss of pillars of our country make us feel endless sorrow,” the statement read. The party has been strongly critical of China’s attempts to increase economic, military and diplomatic pressure. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen appears on track to win a second term over her more pro-China opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the main opposition Nationalists.

Taiwan’s Tsai defends Anti-Infiltration Law aimed at China

January 01, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — China has been relentless in its attempts to influence and infiltrate Taiwan’s politics and society but the island’s new ban on political interference should have no effect on normal exchanges between the sides, Taiwan’s president said in her New Year’s address.

The Anti-Subversion Law that obtained a third and final approval in Taiwan’s legislature Wednesday aims to prevent illegal campaign contributions, staging of political events, the spread of misinformation and other acts by foreigners that could affect Taiwan’s elections or the work of government. It was denounced by the opposition and by China’s Cabinet as overly broad and an attack of exchanges between the sides, but President Tsai Ing-wen defended it as having no effect on normal interactions.

The law’s passage “won’t have any effect on freedom or violate human rights and won’t influence normal commercial exchanges. It will simply provide greater guarantees from Taiwan’s freedom and democracy,” Tsai said.

Given China’s similar actions in other countries, Taiwan’s failure to prevent interference could give the impression it is untroubled by Beijing’s actions, Tsai said. “Under Chinese pressure and with the constant Chinese infiltration and interference, we really needed this law to make Taiwan a safer place and to prevent social divisions arising from infiltration and interference,” she said.

Tsai cited the continuing protests in Hong Kong as proof its governing framework, which Beijing proposes for Taiwan, is untenable. “China’s goal is very clear and that is to compel Taiwan to make concessions on the question of sovereignty under duress,” Tsai said. “Yet in Hong Kong, where ‘one country, two systems’ is in effect, the situation has just gotten worse and worse. Democracy and authoritarianism … cannot co-exist in the same country.”

Tsai said Taiwan would emphasize in the coming year that China’s policies cause instability in the Taiwan Strait, and that Taiwan would not exchange sovereignty for short-term economic gains. China has repeatedly offered benefits to Taiwanese who choose to work and study on the mainland and hundreds of thousands are believed to have taken advantage of the lower costs and greater opportunities in the Chinese market.

That poses the prospect of a “brain drain” of talented Taiwanese to the advantage of China’s economy while furthering Beijing’s goal of breaking down resistance to the possibility of future political unification between the sides. Recent surveys show around 80 percent of Taiwanese reject the idea of political union with China, with most backing the island’s current status of de facto independence.

Tsai is favored to win a second term during elections for president and the legislature on Jan. 11. China cut contacts with Tsai’s government shortly after her 2016 election and her potential reelection raises the possibility Beijing will intensify its campaign of economic, military and diplomatic pressure over her refusal to agree to Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is a piece of Chinese territory that must be reclaimed. China threatens to use force to annex the island if peaceful means fail.

In Beijing, the head of the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Liu Jieyi, warned of “serious damage” to Taiwanese interests if the island’s government did not fall in line with China’s demands. “The bright prospect for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations needs the joint efforts by compatriots on both sides across the Strait and needs Taiwan compatriots to correctly grasp (the situation),” Liu said in a statement issued by his office.

While Liu restated China’s contention that unification between the sides is inevitable, he did not reiterate Beijing’s threat to bring that about by force. In his new year’s eve address, president and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping also avoided repeating his previous references to the military option, possibly in hopes of not further alienating voters from the China-friendly opposition parties.

SUV on grounds of Beijing’s Forbidden City sparks outrage

January 18, 2020

BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese woman sparked social media outrage in her country by posting photos of herself and a friend with a Mercedes-Benz on the grounds of Beijing’s Forbidden City. The reaction prompted an apology from the management of China’s 600-year-old former imperial palace.

Vehicles have been banned since 2013 to protect the cultural dignity of the vast site and its hundreds of historic buildings, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The palace was home to the Qing and Ming emperors, who ruled China for nearly five centuries.

“The Palace Museum was deeply distressed and sincerely apologizes to the public,” it said in a post Friday night on Weibo, a popular service similar to Twitter. It added that it would prevent a repetition of the incident “through strict management.”

The four photos played into public perceptions that people with connections have special privileges in China, though it wasn’t clear if the unidentified woman was from an influential family. The shots showed two young women in sunglasses and a black Mercedes SUV in front of the towering Gate of Supreme Harmony on a sunny winter day.

The woman said in another post that she and her friend had enjoyed the palace without the usual crowds on a Monday, when it is closed, the state-owned Global Times newspaper reported. The posts have been deleted, and she did not respond to a message sent to her Weibo account.

A man identified as the owner of the vehicle told the Beijing News that the woman is a friend who had been invited to an event at the palace, and that some guests had been allowed to drive into the grounds. The newspaper included audio clips of the interview in an online video post.

The issue went viral on Friday. One Weibo user said that the rich and powerful can do whatever they want in China. Some questioned why the woman had privileges not accorded to visiting heads of state, who must get out of their vehicles and walk into the palace, the Global Times said.

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