Iranian Commander Urged Escalation against US Forces at Iraq Meeting, Sources Say

Blast walls of a sleeping quarters for US soldiers are seen at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. (Reuters)
Blast walls of a sleeping quarters for US soldiers are seen at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. (Reuters)
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Iranian Commander Urged Escalation against US Forces at Iraq Meeting, Sources Say

Blast walls of a sleeping quarters for US soldiers are seen at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. (Reuters)
Blast walls of a sleeping quarters for US soldiers are seen at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. (Reuters)

A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander urged Iraqi Shiite militias to step up attacks on US targets during a meeting in Baghdad last week, three militia sources and two Iraqi security sources familiar with the gathering said.

American forces in Iraq and Syria were attacked several times following the visit by an Iranian delegation led by Revolutionary Guards intelligence chief Hossein Taeb, which came after deadly US air strikes against Iran-backed militias at the Syrian-Iraqi border on June 27.

While encouraging retaliation, the Iranians advised the Iraqis not to go too far to avoid a big escalation, three militia sources briefed on the meeting said.

The Iranians did, however, advise them to widen their attacks by retaliating against US forces in Syria, according to one of the three militia sources, a senior local militia commander briefed on the meeting.

The flare-up comes as significant differences cloud diplomatic efforts to revive the Iranian 2015 nuclear agreement, which was abandoned by former US President Donald Trump but which Iran wants reinstated to allow it to resume key exports of oil.

A senior official in the region, who was briefed by Iranian authorities on Taeb’s visit, said that Taeb met several Iraqi militia leaders during the trip and conveyed “the supreme leader’s message to them about keeping up pressure on US forces in Iraq until they leave the region”.

Since the US air strikes, attacks on US troops and personnel or bases where they operate have intensified in Iraq and widened to eastern Syria.

Iran’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters for this article, and officials at the Revolutionary Guards public relations office were not immediately available for comment.

Iran’s UN envoy this month denied US accusations that Tehran supported attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, and condemned US air strikes on Iranian-backed militants there.

There was no immediate response from the Iraqi government or the prime minister’s office to questions about the meeting.

The sources to whom Reuters spoke did so on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

US-Iranian rivalry
Iraq has been a theater of US-Iranian rivalry since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Shiite militias have been waging a sustained and increasingly sophisticated campaign against US forces which, after withdrawing in 2011, returned to Iraq in 2014 at the head of a coalition to fight the ISIS group.

But the attacks, including explosives-laden drones, have gone up a gear since the US air strikes, which Iran-aligned militias say killed four of their members.

The two Iraqi security sources close to the activities and operations of the groups said the Iranians handed their Iraqi allies aerial maps of US positions in eastern Syria at the July 5 meeting.

The Pentagon said it was deeply concerned about the attacks, including a July 7 rocket barrage on the Ain al-Asad air base in which two American service members were wounded.

A senior Guards figure, Taeb is a mid-ranking Shiite cleric seen by insiders and analysts of Iranian politics as close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The senior official in the region said Khamenei had sent Taeb to Iraq after visits there by Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, appointed last year as head of the Guards’ expeditionary branch, the Quds Force, had failed to yield an escalation.

An Iraqi government official said it appeared Iran was seeking to use its allies in Iraq to apply pressure for a return to the nuclear deal, under which harsh US sanctions would be lifted in return for curbs on Iran’s atomic activities.

A senior Iranian diplomat said Taeb’s visit to Baghdad indicated that Khamenei was getting directly involved in Iraq affairs after the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, a previous Quds Force head, in a US drone strike in Iraq early last year.

A spokesman for one of the Iranian-backed militia groups hit by the US air strike last month confirmed that the recent attacks were carried out by the Iraqi Islamic Resistance, a reference to the Shiite Iran-backed groups.

“The military escalation against the American forces will continue until all their combatant forces leave Iraq,” Kadhim al-Fartousi, the spokesman for the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction, told Reuters.

Saad al-Saadi, a senior official in the political office of the Iranian-backed group of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said if the Americans continued to strike at militias, then more effective attacks on US forces could be expected anywhere in Iraq and Syria.

The meeting was held in Baghdad’s upscale Jadiriya neighborhood in a villa just across the river Tigris from the US embassy, two of the local militia commanders said.

Iran and the United States began indirect negotiations in Vienna in early April to restore the nuclear deal. No date has been set for further talks, which adjourned on June 20.

Some Western and Iranian officials have said the talks are a long way from a conclusion, as disagreements on which US sanctions should be lifted and on the nuclear commitments that Iran has to make and when still remain in place.



Iranian Nobel Laureate Faces New Trial, Says Family

Narges Mohammadi, pictured here in April 2021, won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for women's rights in Iran. (AFP)
Narges Mohammadi, pictured here in April 2021, won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for women's rights in Iran. (AFP)
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Iranian Nobel Laureate Faces New Trial, Says Family

Narges Mohammadi, pictured here in April 2021, won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for women's rights in Iran. (AFP)
Narges Mohammadi, pictured here in April 2021, won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for women's rights in Iran. (AFP)

Jailed Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi faces a new trial over accusations she made against the security forces of sexually assaulting female prisoners, her family said on Saturday.

The trial, due to begin on Sunday, relates to an audio message she shared from prison in April shared by supporters and in which she decried a "full-scale war against women" in the country.

She is charged in this latest case with making "propaganda against the regime", it said.

There has been no comment on the case by the Iranian judicial authorities.

Her family quoted Mohammadi as saying that the trial should be held in public so "witnesses and survivors can testify to the sexual assaults perpetrated by" the Iranian regime against women.

Mohammadi, who is held in Tehran's Evin prison, urged Iranian women in her April message via her Instagram page to share their stories of arrest and sexual assault at the hands of the authorities.

She pointed to the case of journalist and student Dina Ghalibaf who, according to rights groups, was arrested after accusing security forces on social media of handcuffing and sexually assaulting her during a previous arrest at a metro station. Ghalibaf was later released.

The authorities in Iran have in recent weeks intensified a crackdown obliging women to obey the country's religious dress code, notably making use of video surveillance.

Mohammadi has been incarcerated since November 2021 and has not seen her Paris-based husband and twin children for several years.

She said the trial that opens on Sunday will be the fourth such case against her.

Mohammadi is already serving sentences based on several convictions issued in recent years, which her family says punish her rights campaigning.

According to her family, her sentences now amount to 12 years and three months of imprisonment, 154 lashes, two years of exile and various social and political restrictions.

Mohammadi has long been a staunch opponent of the obligation for women in Iran to wear the headscarf and has continued her campaign even in prison, refusing to wear the hijab in front of male officials.


Iran Hangs Two Women as Surge in Executions Intensifies, Says NGO

Activists are worried by the surge in executions in Iran. (AFP)
Activists are worried by the surge in executions in Iran. (AFP)
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Iran Hangs Two Women as Surge in Executions Intensifies, Says NGO

Activists are worried by the surge in executions in Iran. (AFP)
Activists are worried by the surge in executions in Iran. (AFP)

Iran on Saturday hanged at least seven people, including two women, while a member of its Jewish minority is at imminent risk of execution as Tehran further intensified its use of capital punishment, an NGO said.

Parvin Mousavi, 53, a mother of two grown-up children, was hanged in Urmia prison in northwestern Iran along with five men convicted in various drug-related cases, the Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) said in a statement.

In Nishapur in eastern Iran, a 27-year-old woman named Fatemeh Abdullahi was hanged on charges of murdering her husband, who was also her cousin, it said.

IHR says it has tallied at least 223 executions this year, with at least 50 so far in May alone. A new surge began following the end of Persian New Year and Ramadan holidays in April, with 115 people including six women hanged since then, it said.

Iran carries out more recorded executions of women than any other country. Activists say many such convicts are victims of forced or abusive marriages.

Iran last year carried out more hangings than in any year since 2015, according to NGOs, which accuse the country of using capital punishment as a means to instill fear in the wake of protests that erupted in autumn 2022.

"The silence of the international community is unacceptable," IHR director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam told AFP.

"Those executed belong to the poor and marginalized groups of Iranian society and didn't have fair trials with due process."

- 'Killing machine' -

IHR said Mousavi had been in prison for four years. It cited a source as saying she had been paid the equivalent of 15 euros to carry a package she had been told contained medicine but was in fact five kilos of morphine.

"They are the low-cost victims of the republic's killing machine, which aims at instilling fear among people to prevent new protests," added Amiry-Moghaddam.

The group meanwhile said a member of Iran's Jewish community, which has drastically reduced in numbers in recent years but is still the largest in the Middle East outside Israel, was at imminent risk of execution over a murder charge.

Arvin Ghahremani, 20, was convicted of murder during a street fight when he was 18 and is scheduled to be executed in the western city of Kermanshah on Monday, it said, adding it had received an audio message from his mother Sonia Saadati asking for his life to be spared.

His family is seeking to ask the family of the victim to forgo the execution.

Also at risk of execution is Kamran Sheikheh, the last surviving member of a group of seven Iranian Kurdish men who were first arrested between early December 2009 and late January 2010 and later sentenced to death for "corruption on earth" over alleged membership of extremist groups, it said.

Six men convicted in the same case have been executed in the last months almost one-and-a-half decades after their initial arrest, the last being Khosro Besharat who was hanged in Ghezel Hesar prison outside Tehran this week.

There has been an international outcry meanwhile over the death sentence handed out last month to Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, seen by activists as retaliation for his music backing the 2022 protests. His lawyers are appealing the verdict.


Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico Still in Serious Condition, Officials Say

Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)
Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)
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Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico Still in Serious Condition, Officials Say

Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)
Pedestrians walk at the main square near the House of Culture (L) in Handlova, Slovakia, on May 18, 2024, where Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had been shot "multiple times" on May 15. (AFP)

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico remains in serious condition and still faces risks of complications but has stabilized, officials said on Saturday, following Wednesday's assassination attempt.

The prime minister, 59, was shot at five times at point-blank range in an attack that sent shockwaves through Europe and raised concerns over the polarized state of politics in Slovakia, a central European country of 5.4 million people.

"We have not won yet, that is important to say," Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kaliniak said, giving an update on Fico's condition in front of the hospital in the town of Banka Bystrica where the prime minister is being treated.

The Slovak Specialized Criminal Court ruled on Saturday that the suspect, identified by prosecutors as Juraj C., would remain in custody after being charged with attempted murder.

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok has said the suspected attacker, who was detained on the spot, acted alone. The suspect had previously taken part in anti-government protests, he said on Thursday.

Kalinak said there was no need to formally take over Fico's official duties while some communication with the premier was taking place.

Fico underwent a two-hour operation on Friday that improved prospects for his recovery.

"We are succeeding in gradually nearing a positive prognosis," Kalinak said.

"In the initial hours, the prognosis was very, very bad, you know that shots into the abdomen are basically fatal, in this case (the doctors) managed to overturn this state and further stabilize the condition."

Fico still faced a "big risk" of complications, Kalinak said. "The body's reaction to a shooting wound is always very serious and brings (the risk of) a number of complications, which lasts for 4-5 days, which is today and tomorrow."

He said it was unlikely Fico could be transferred to the capital, Bratislava, in coming days.

About 100 Fico supporters, some carrying flowers, gathered on Saturday outside the F.D. Roosevelt University Hospital where the premier was being treated.

Local news media say the suspect is a 71-year-old former security guard at a shopping mall and the author of three collections of poetry.

The court ruled he would remain in custody pending an investigation because of the risk of escape or criminal activity. The decision is subject to appeal.

Since returning for a fourth time as prime minister last October, Fico has shifted policy quickly in what opposition critics called a power grab. His government has scaled back support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, and is revamping the public broadcaster amid concern from critics about media freedom.


Gaza War Protesters Temporarily Take over Building on University of Chicago Campus

Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)
Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)
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Gaza War Protesters Temporarily Take over Building on University of Chicago Campus

Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)
Demonstrators stand as workers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas continues, at DePaul university in Chicago, Illinois, US, May 16, 2024. (Reuters)

A group protesting the war in Gaza and demanding that the University of Chicago divest from companies doing business with Israel temporarily took over a building on the school’s campus.

Members of the group surrounded the Institute of Politics building around 5 p.m. Friday while others made their way inside, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

The brief occupation came as other colleges across the country, anxious to prepare for commencement season, either negotiated agreements with students or called in police to dismantle protest camps.

The Chicago protest follows the May 7 clearing of a pro-Palestinian tent encampment at the school by police. University of Chicago administrators had initially adopted a permissive approach, but said earlier this month that the protest had crossed a line and caused growing concerns about safety.

On Friday, campus police officers using riot shields gained access to the Institute of Politics building and scuffled with protesters. Some protesters climbed from a second-floor window, according to the Sun-Times.

The school said protesters attempted to bar the entrance, damaged university property and ignored directives to clear the way, and that those inside the building left when campus police officers entered.

“The University of Chicago is fundamentally committed to upholding the rights of protesters to express a wide range of views,” school spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan said in a statement. “At the same time, university policies make it clear that protests cannot jeopardize public safety, disrupt the university’s operations or involve the destruction of property.”

No arrests or injuries were reported.

Students and others have set up tent encampments on campuses around the country to protest the Israel-Hamas war, pressing colleges to cut financial ties with Israel. Tensions over the war have been high on campuses since the fall but the pro-Palestinian demonstrations spread quickly following an April 18 police crackdown on an encampment at Columbia University.

The demonstrations reached all corners of the United States, becoming its largest campus protest movement in decades, and spread to other countries, including many in Europe.

Lately, some protesters have taken down their tents, as at Harvard, where student activists this week said the encampment had “outlasted its utility with respect to our demands.” Others packed up after striking deals with college administrators who offered amnesty for protesters, discussions around their investments, and other concessions. On many other campuses, colleges have called in police to clear demonstrations.

More than 2,900 people have been arrested on US campuses over the past month. As summer break approaches, there have been fewer new arrests and campuses have been calmer. Still, colleges have been vigilant for disruptions to commencement ceremonies.

The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other gunmen stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian fighters still hold about 100 captives, and Israel’s military has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

On Thursday, police began dismantling a pro-Palestinian encampment at DePaul University in Chicago, hours after the school’s president told students to leave the area or face arrest.


Ukraine Struggles to Hold Eastern Front as Russians Advance on Cities

 Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
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Ukraine Struggles to Hold Eastern Front as Russians Advance on Cities

 Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
Ukrainian servicemen of the 21st Separate Mechanized Brigade rest atop of a Leopard 2A6 tank after a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2024. (Reuters)

For Ukrainian gun commander Oleksandr Kozachenko, the long-awaited US ammunition can't come fast enough as he and his comrades struggle to hold off relentless Russian attacks.

His unit's US-supplied M777 howitzer, which once hurled 100 shells a day at the encroaching enemy, is now often reduced to fewer than 10.

"It's a luxury if we can fire 30 shells."

America says it's rushing ammunition and weapons to Ukraine following the delayed approval of a $61 billion aid package by Congress last month. As of early May, though, two artillery units visited by Reuters on the eastern frontline said they were still waiting for a boost in deliveries and operating at a fraction of the rate they need to hold back the Russians.

Gunners with Kozachenko's 148th Separate Artillery Brigade and the 43rd Artillery Brigade, both in the Donetsk region, said they were desperate for more 155mm rounds for their Western cannons, which had given them an edge over Russia earlier in the war.

Resurgent Russian forces, which significantly outnumber and outgun the Ukrainian defenders, have been mounting multiple attacks across the eastern Donbas region in recent months and along the country's northeastern border last week.

The drive has marked an inflection point in the conflict spawned by Russia's full-scale invasion more than two years ago.

Russia has gained more territory in 2024 than it lost control of during Ukraine's much-hyped counteroffensive in the summer of 2023, according to Pasi Paroinen, an analyst with Black Bird Group, a Finnish-based volunteer group that analyses satellite imagery and social media content from the war.

Moscow's forces have claimed 654 sq km since the beginning of this year, outstripping the 414 sq km lost to Ukraine between June 1 and Oct. 1 last year, Paroinen said. Russia has gained 222 sq km of territory since only May 2, he added.

Russia's defense ministry didn't respond to a request for comment for this article, while Ukraine's military didn't immediately respond.

Colonel Pavlo Palisa, whose 93rd Mechanized Brigade is fighting near the key strategic city of Chasiv Yar, said he believed Russia was preparing a major push to break Ukrainian lines in the east. This echoed the commander of Ukraine's ground forces who said last week he expected the war to enter a critical phase over the next two months as Moscow tries to exploit persistent delays in weapons supplies to Kyiv.

"Without a doubt, this will be a difficult period for the armed forces," said Palisa, adding that he believes the Kremlin wants to capture the entire Donbas industrial region by the end of this year.

CITIES BRACE FOR RUSSIAN ADVANCE

Russian forces are gradually making inroads that could come to threaten several big cities in the east including Kostiantynivka, Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which serve as key military hubs for Kyiv's war effort.

Some gains are striking fear in the heart of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians living in those Donetsk region cities as the enemy grinds ever closer.

"We live only for today," said 31-year-old school teacher Nina Shyshymarieva, standing with her young daughter outside a church in Kostiantynivka as artillery thundered in the distance.

"We don't know what will happen tomorrow."

Russian cannons are now easily within range of Kostiantynivka; the closest Russian position at the start of 2024 was about 20 km away, according to open-source maps that show shifting positions along the frontline. Now it is 14 km.

Shyshymarieva and the fighters on the frontline were among more than a dozen soldiers, commanders, residents and evacuation volunteers interviewed by Reuters in eastern Ukraine over the last two weeks. They painted a picture of deep uncertainty.

Much of the Donetsk region, which along with Luhansk makes up the greater Donbas area, is under daily bombardment, typically targeted at least a dozen times a day by Russian artillery or air strikes, according to regional governor Vadym Filashkin.

Ruins of homes, apartment blocks and administrative buildings are common sights in towns and cities.

Oleksandr Stasenko, a volunteer rescuer, said his team was receiving more evacuation requests particularly from Kostiantynivka and Kurakhove, another town further south, among other settlements.

Russian forces have encroached toward Kurakhove, too, advancing 2-3 km along the road running east from the town so far this year.

"Wherever the front line is approaching, people in those places are trying to leave as soon as possible," said Stasenko, adding that his group, East SOS, evacuates around two dozen a week, many of them elderly or infirm.

'TIME IS NOT ON OUR SIDE'

Ukraine has roughly 1,000 km of frontlines to defend in the east, north and south.

Some of the fiercest fighting in 2024 has centered on Chasiv Yar, which commands important high ground 12 km away from Kostiantynivka. It lies west of the devastated city of Bakhmut that Moscow seized last year after months of costly combat.

Russian advances near Chasiv Yar, and further south around the village of Ocheretyne, could drive wedges into territory relied upon by Ukraine's war planners for logistics, analysts said, because they would expose key roads to Russian fire.

A major highway leading west out of Kostiantynivka is already under threat. Cutting it off entirely would mean transit hubs further north, including Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, both numbering well over 100,000 people before the war, would lose a crucial supply line.

Russia's fresh assault on the northeastern Kharkiv region, which began on Friday, also risks diverting stretched Ukrainian forces from the eastern front, further compromising their ability to hold the line, according to said Emil Kastehelmi, another analyst at Black Bird Group.

"At the moment, it seems the goal of the (Kharkiv) operation is to cause confusion and tie remaining Ukrainian reserves to areas of lesser importance," he said.

Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the London-based RUSI think-tank, said Russian forces would likely mount further attacks on northern and southern points of the frontline in order to stretch Kyiv's defenses.

"Once Ukraine commits its reserves in these directions, the main effort will see the expansion of the Russian push in Donbas," he wrote in a May 14 commentary.

A new law strengthening Kyiv's mobilization effort, which has been hobbled by public skepticism, takes effect on May 18. Experts and commanders say it could take several months before fresh recruits reach the front and reinforce exhausted troops there.

Even if Ukrainian forces can hold out until all the American ammunition and weapons get through to the front, the challenge ahead remains daunting, according to many of those fighting.

"I would say that it is unlikely that time is on our side, since a long war requires more resources," said Palisa, the colonel with the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, speaking hours after Russia launched its ground incursion in Kharkiv.

He added that it would be critical to impose as heavy a cost on Russia as quickly as possible.

"The enemy's resources, whether in terms of manpower or the materiel, cannot be compared with ours. It's extraordinarily large. That is why a long war, I think, is not in our favor."


North Korea Confirms Missile Launch, Vows Bolstered Nuclear Force

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)
A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)
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North Korea Confirms Missile Launch, Vows Bolstered Nuclear Force

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)
A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test fire of a tactical ballistic missile at an undisclosed location, North Korea, 17 May 2024 (issued 18 May 2024). (EPA/KCNA)

North Korea has test-fired a tactical ballistic missile equipped with a "new autonomous navigation system", state media said Saturday, with leader Kim Jong Un vowing to boost the country's nuclear force.

Kim oversaw the Friday test-launch into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, on a mission to evaluate the "accuracy and reliability of the autonomous navigation system", Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The launch was the latest in a string of ever more sophisticated tests by North Korea, which has fired off cruise missiles, tactical rockets and hypersonic weapons in recent months, in what the nuclear-armed, UN-sanctioned country says is a drive to upgrade its defenses.

The Friday launch came hours after leader Kim's powerful sister Kim Yo Jong denied allegations by Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang is shipping weapons to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine.

Seoul's military on Friday described the test as "several flying objects presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles" from North Korea's eastern Wonsan area into waters off its coast.

The suspected missiles travelled around 300 kilometers (186 miles) before splashing down in waters between South Korea and Japan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said.

"The accuracy and reliability of the autonomous navigation system were verified through the test fire," Pyongyang's KCNA said Saturday, adding leader Kim expressed "great satisfaction" over the launch.

In a separate report released on Saturday, KCNA said Kim visited a military production facility the previous day and urged for "more rapidly bolstering the nuclear force" of the nation "without halt and hesitation".

During the visit, he said the "enemies would be afraid of and dare not to play with fire only when they witness the nuclear combat posture of our state", according to KCNA.

Pyongyang's nuclear force "will meet a very important change and occupy a remarkably raised strategic position" when its munitions production plan, aimed to be completed by 2025, is carried out, it added.

- Denial -

Seoul and Washington have accused North Korea of sending arms to Russia, which would violate rafts of United Nations sanctions on both countries, with experts saying the recent spate of testing may be of weapons destined for use on battlefields in Ukraine.

North Korea is barred by UN sanctions from any tests using ballistic technology, but its key ally Moscow used its UN Security Council veto in March to effectively end UN monitoring of violations, for which Pyongyang has specifically thanked Russia.

But leader Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong said Friday that Pyongyang had "no intention to export our military technical capabilities to any country", adding that the North's priority was "to make the war readiness and war deterrent of our army more perfect in quality and quantity".

She accused Seoul and Washington of "misleading the public opinion" with their allegations that Pyongyang was transferring arms to Russia.

The Friday launches come as Russian leader Vladimir Putin was in China on Friday, the final day of a visit aiming to promote crucial trade with Beijing -- North Korea's most important ally -- and win greater support for his war effort in Ukraine.

North Korea's latest weapons tests were likely intended to attract the attention of Putin while he was in China, said Ahn Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies.

The North would benefit greatly from an expected visit by Putin to Pyongyang, and "they want their country to be used as a military logistics base during Russia's ongoing war (in Ukraine)", he told AFP.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said: "China and Russia's irresponsible handling of North Korea, riding on the new Cold War dynamics, is further encouraging Pyongyang's nuclear armament."

Inter-Korean relations are at one of their lowest points in years, with Pyongyang declaring Seoul its "principal enemy".

It has jettisoned agencies dedicated to reunification and threatened war over "even 0.001 mm" of territorial infringement.


Trump Campaigns in Minnesota, Predicting He Will Win the Traditionally Democratic State in November

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)
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Trump Campaigns in Minnesota, Predicting He Will Win the Traditionally Democratic State in November

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner hosted by the Minnesota Republican party on May 17, 2024 in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Getty Images via AFP)

Former President Donald Trump used a day off from his hush money trial Friday to headline a Republican fundraiser in Minnesota, a traditionally Democratic state that he boasts he can carry in November.

Trump took the stage late as he headlined the state GOP’s annual Lincoln Reagan dinner in St. Paul after attending his son Barron's high school graduation in Florida.

Declaring his appearance to be “an official expansion” of the electoral map of states that could be competitive in November, Trump said, “We’re going to win this state."

“This November the people of Minnesota are going to tell Crooked Joe Biden — right? ‘The Apprentice'? ’You’re fired!'” Trump said, referencing his former reality television show and the catchphrase he used on it.

Trump boasted that the steep tariffs he imposed on foreign steel while serving as president bought the Iron Range, the iron mining area of northeastern Minnesota, “roaring back to life.” The area, with a heavy population of blue-collar workers and union workers, used to be solidly Democratic, but the region has been trending Republican in recent elections.

He also made a profane attack on President Joe Biden, calling him “a horrible president” who is “destroying our country” and then adding, “He’s a horrible human being too.”

Trump then shifted to calling the president a “non-athlete” and attacked his golf game, accusing him of inflating his golfing abilities and making other misrepresentations before using an expletive that drew loud laughs and sustained applause.

Trump was using part of the day granted by the trial judge for the graduation to campaign in Minnesota, a state he argues he can win in the November rematch with Biden. No Republican presidential candidate has won Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972, but Trump came close to flipping the state in 2016, when he fell 1.5 percentage points short of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump returned to Minnesota several times in 2020, when Biden beat him by more than 7 percentage points.

“I think this is something Trump wants to do. He believes this is a state he can win. We believe that’s the case as well,” David Hann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said in an interview.

Democratic US Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, a Biden ally, said the Trump campaign is “grasping at straws” if it thinks he can win the state.

“The Biden campaign is going to work hard for every vote,” Smith said in an interview. “We’re going to engage with voters all over the state. But I think Minnesota voters are going to choose President Biden.”

Hann co-hosted Friday's dinner along with Trump’s state campaign chair, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who represents a central Minnesota district. Hann said Emmer was instrumental in bringing the former president to Minnesota.

The dinner coincided with the party’s state convention and the roughly 1,400 attendees included former US Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, who has been a prominent promoter of false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Tickets started at $500, ranging up to $100,000 for a VIP table for 10 with three photo opportunities with Trump. Hann declined to say how much money he expects it will raise, but he anticipates a full house of around 1,400 people.

All the money from the dinner tickets will go to the state party, Hann said, though he added that some money from photo opportunities may go to the Trump campaign. Ahead of Trump’s remarks Friday night, Emmer and Hann told the crowd that thanks to the fundraiser, the state party was out of debt for the first time in 10 years.

“No sham trial is going to keep President Trump off the campaign trail. And it’s definitely not going to stop us from turning Minnesota red in November,” Emmer said in his remarks.

Experts are split on whether Minnesota really will be competitive this time, given its history and the strong Democratic Party ground game in the state. But Hann said there's “great dissatisfaction with President Biden” in the state, noting that nearly 19% of Democratic voters in its Super Tuesday primary marked their ballots for “uncommitted.” That was at least partly due to a protest-vote movement over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war that has spread to several states.

Trump on Friday night repeated a false claim that he won Minnesota in the 2020 election, wrongly declaring he won “a landslide in your state.”

There’s no evidence that there were any serious irregularities in the state.

Trump’s youngest son, Barron Trump, graduated Friday morning from the private Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida. The former president, who attended the graduation with his wife, Melania Trump, and her father, Viktor Knavs, had long complained Judge Juan M. Merchan would not let him attend the graduation before Merchan agreed not to hold court Friday.


Philippines to Vigorously Defend Territory, President Says

Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)
Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)
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Philippines to Vigorously Defend Territory, President Says

Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)
Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. looks on as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024. (Reuters)

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Saturday the country will "vigorously defend what is ours", in a thinly veiled reference to mounting tensions with China over maritime disputes.

The conduct against intruders disrespecting Philippine territorial integrity will be guided by law and the responsibility as a rules-abiding member of the international community, Marcos said in a speech to graduating military cadets.

"Against intruders who have been disrespecting our territorial integrity, we will vigorously defend what is ours," Marcos said.

He did not identify the intruders, but Manila and Beijing have been in escalating standoffs in the South China Sea, including China's use of water cannon that resulted in injuries and property damage, a military-grade laser directed at Philippine vessels and what the Philippines calls "dangerous maneuvers" in the disputed waterway.

China claims almost all the South China Sea, a conduit for $3 trillion in annual ship-borne trade, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration found that China's sweeping claims have no legal basis.


Fifty Dead in Heavy Rain, Floods in Central Afghanistan

An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
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Fifty Dead in Heavy Rain, Floods in Central Afghanistan

An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)
An Afghan boy walks along a flooded street in Sheikh Jalal, Baghlan province, Afghanistan May 12, 2024. (Reuters)

At least 50 people are dead following a fresh bout of heavy rain and flooding in central Afghanistan, an official said on Saturday.
Mawlawi Abdul Hai Zaeem, the head of the information department for the central Ghor province, told Reuters that there was no information about how many people were injured in the rain spell that began on Friday, which had also cut off many key roads to the area.
Zaeem added that 2,000 houses were completely destroyed, 4,000 partially damaged, and more than 2,000 shops were under water in the province's capital, Feroz-Koh.
Last week, flash floods caused by heavy rains devastated villages in northern Afghanistan, killing 315 people and injuring more than 1,600, authorities said on Sunday.
On Wednesday, a helicopter used by the Afghan air force crashed due to "technical issues" during attempts to recover the bodies of people who had fallen into a river in Ghor province, killing one and injuring 12 people, the country's defense ministry said.
Afghanistan is prone to natural disasters and the United Nations considers it one of countries most vulnerable to climate change.
It has battled a shortfall in aid after the Taliban took over as foreign forces withdrew from the country in 2021, since development aid that formed the backbone of government finances was slashed.
The shortfall has worsened in subsequent years as foreign governments grapple with competing global crises and growing condemnation of the Taliban's curbs on Afghan women.


Taliban Supreme Leader Makes Rare Visit to Kabul

Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)
Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)
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Taliban Supreme Leader Makes Rare Visit to Kabul

Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)
Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (AP)

Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who has been rarely seen outside his reclusive compound in Kandahar, made a rare visit to Afghanistan’s capital to meet with the country’s senior officials, a government website said Friday.

The organization's El Emara website published video clips of Akhundzada giving a speech in front of the 34 provincial governors on Thursday at the Interior Ministry.

The leader, of whom only one photo has been publicly circulated, emphasized "unity and harmony," according to the website.

"Obedience was highlighted as a divine obligation," it said, adding that the implementation of Islamic Sharia law and principles "should take precedence over personal interests."

The purpose of the visit was likely about "enforcing internal discipline and unity," a Western diplomat told AFP, adding that it could be motivated by the unrest in Badakhshan in eastern Afghanistan.

Witnesses reported that Taliban forces opened fire to disperse villagers protesting against poppy clearing — a lucrative crop banned by Akhundzada in April 2022.

Experts believe that Akhundzada is creating a rift between the two main Taliban camps in power: Kandahar, the movement's southern stronghold where the supreme commander runs the country by decree, and Kabul, where the supposedly less strict government is based.

"Whenever you see cracks or disagreements, then you have Kandahar stepping in reminding everyone and enforcing that (unity) as well," the diplomat added.

The supreme commander has visited Kabul only once since the Taliban's return to power in mid-August 2021 and has rarely spoken since taking office in 2016.

Last March, the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban government has said it is determined to enforce the Islamic criminal justice system, including the public stoning of women for adultery.