Author: Depoworld

EU, US Pledge Additional Support to Ukraine

European Union officials pledged their unwavering support Friday to help Ukraine rebuild its infrastructure against Russia’s ongoing war, while the U.S. announced a fresh round of security assistance worth more than $2 billion.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv for the 24th EU-Ukraine Summit. The EU officials said the union will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

In a joint statement Friday, the officials promised to help rebuild Ukraine’s devastated critical infrastructure, providing energy support and services for the country “to get through the winter,” and beyond. They said that so far, the EU and its member states have provided assistance worth $570 million in the area of energy and reconstruction, and another $525 million for humanitarian efforts.

The officials underscored their commitment to promote Ukraine’s integration in the European Union, but they said there was no promise of fast-track membership.

Kyiv applied to become an EU member shortly after Russia’s invasion and wants to start formal accession talks as soon as possible.

“There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals that you have to reach,” von der Leyen told the news conference in response to a question about Ukraine’s accession drive. One of the conditions for Ukraine’s EU integration is its fight against corruption. The EU Commission president praised Kyiv for its expanded efforts to clamp down on graft.

Michel and von der Leyen condemned Russia’s escalating war against Ukraine and its citizens as “a manifest violation of international law, including the principles of the U.N. Charter.”

They emphasized the need to establish a Special Tribunal at The Hague for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes against Ukraine.

They also emphasized that the EU will never recognize as lawful any illegal annexation of Ukraine by Russia.

In addition, the EU officials unveiled a new package of sanctions, the 10th, against Russia. It will target the trade and technology that supports its war against Ukraine, von der Leyen said.

“With our partners, we must deny Russia the means to kill Ukrainian civilians and destroy homes and offices,” she said in a tweet.

US defense assistance

The United States announced Friday it would provide an additional $2.175 billion worth of military aid for Ukraine, including conventional and long-range rockets for U.S.-provided HIMARs, as well as other munitions and weapons. According to a U.S. official, the longer-range precision-guided rockets would double Ukraine’s strike range for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing Friday the package includes “critical air defense capabilities to help Ukraine defend its people, as well as armored infantry vehicles and more equipment that Ukraine is using so effectively, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, artillery ammunition.”

Ryder added that “as part of the USAI [Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative] package, we will be providing Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs to Ukraine.”

Friday’s aid package opens the door to many more deliveries of Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs, which have a range of 94 miles, according to a document reviewed by Reuters.

USAI is an authority under which the United States procures capabilities from industry rather than delivering equipment that is drawn down from Defense Department stocks. This announcement represents the beginning of a contracting process to provide additional capabilities to Ukraine’s Armed Forces as part of U.S. efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s military over the near and long-term.

In total, the United States has now supplied nearly $30 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, the Defense Department reports. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $32 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, and more than $29.3 billion since the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

Wagner Group recruitment

Meanwhile, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday the Wagner Group’s recruitment of convicts has dropped significantly. The ministry said the Russian Federal Penal Service experienced a decrease of 6,000 inmates since November. In comparison, the penal service had reported a drop of 23,000 inmates from September to November 2022.

“Wagner recruitment was likely a major contributing factor to this drop,” the British ministry said.  

The Ukrainian presidential office said overall in the last day, Russian shelling in Ukraine had killed at least eight civilians and wounded 29 others. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

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Iran Blamed for Hack of French Magazine Charlie Hebdo

An Iranian government-backed hacking team allegedly stole and leaked private customer data belonging to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, security researchers at Microsoft said Friday.

The magazine was hacked in early January after it published a series of cartoons that negatively depicted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The caricatures were part of a media campaign that Charlie Hebdo said was intended to support anti-government protests in the Islamic nation.

Representatives for the Iranian and French governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A press officer for Charlie Hebdo said the magazine had no comment on the matter “for the moment.”

Iran publicly vowed an “effective response” to the “insulting” cartoons, and summoned the French envoy in Tehran, while also ending activities of the French Institute of Research in Iran and saying it was re-evaluating France’s cultural activities in the country.

Hack part of larger operation

The hack-and-leak targeting Charlie Hebdo was part of a wider digital influence operation with techniques matching previously identified activity linked to Iranian state-backed hacking teams, Microsoft researchers said in a report. The group responsible is the same one that U.S. Department of Justice officials earlier identified as having conducted a “multi-faceted campaign” to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Microsoft said. Iran denied the claims at the time.

Amid Iran’s criticism of the Khamenei cartoons, a group of hackers calling itself “Holy Souls” posted on an online forum that they had access to the names and contact details of more than 200,000 Charlie Hebdo subscribers. In their post, they said they would sell the information for 20 bitcoins (approximately $470,000 USD).

A sample of the leaked data was later released and verified as authentic by the French newspaper Le Monde.

“This information, obtained by the Iranian actor, could put the magazine’s subscribers at risk for online or physical targeting by extremist organizations,” the Microsoft researchers said.

Twitter used to amplify reach

To amplify their operation, the Iranian hackers used Twitter accounts with fake or stolen identities to criticize the Khamenei cartoons. Two accounts impersonating a Charlie Hebdo editor and a technology executive also posted the leaked data before Twitter banned them, Microsoft said.

Twitter’s press team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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US May Lift Protections for Yellowstone, Glacier Grizzlies

The Biden administration took a first step Friday toward ending federal protections for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which would open the door to future hunting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state officials provided “substantial” information that grizzlies have recovered from the threat of extinction in the regions surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

But federal officials rejected claims by Idaho that protections should be lifted beyond those areas, and they raised concerns about new laws from the Republican-led states that could potentially harm grizzly populations.

“We will fully evaluate these and other potential threats,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Friday’s move kicks off at least a year of further study before final decisions about the Yellowstone and Glacier regions.

State officials have insisted any future hunts would be limited and not endanger the overall population.

However, Republican lawmakers in the region in recent years also adopted more aggressive policies against gray wolves, including loosened trapping rules that could lead to grizzlies being inadvertently killed.

As many as 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the western half of the U.S. They were exterminated in most of the country early last century by overhunting and trapping, and the last hunts in the northern Rockies occurred decades ago. There are now more than 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 states and much larger populations in Alaska, where hunting is allowed.

The species’ expansion in the Glacier and Yellowstone areas has led to conflicts between humans and bears, including periodic attacks on livestock and sometimes fatal maulings of humans.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed the administration’s announcement and said it could lead to the state reclaiming management of a species that’s been under federal protections since 1975. He said the grizzly’s recovery “represents a conservation success.”

The federal government removed protections for the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzlies in 2017. Wyoming and Idaho were set to allow grizzlies to be hunted when a judge restored those protections in 2018, siding with environmental groups that said delisting wasn’t based on sound science. Those groups want protections kept in place so bears can continue moving into new areas.

“We should not be ready to trust those states,” said attorney Andrea Zaccardi, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

U.S. government scientists have said the region’s grizzlies are biologically recovered but in 2021 decided that protections were still needed because of human-caused bear deaths and other pressures. Bears considered problematic are regularly killed by wildlife officials.

A decision on the states’ petitions was long overdue. Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Thursday had filed notice he intended to sue over the delay. Idaho’s petition was broader than the ones filed by Montana and sought to lift protections nationwide.

That would have included small populations of bears in portions of Idaho, Montana and Washington state, where biologists say the animals have not yet recovered to sustainable levels. It also could have prevented the return of bears to other areas such as the North Cascades region.

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Cherokee People Demand US Fulfill 200-Year-Old Promise

Nearly 200 years ago, the U.S. government promised the Cherokee people a seat in Congress in exchange for their homelands. So far, it has not delivered. Today, the Cherokee people are calling for Congress to fulfill that promise, but there is disagreement over which of three Cherokee tribes should get the delegate seat. Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera: Dana Preobrazhenskaya

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VOA Firsthand Look: US Troops Defend NATO’s Edge in Romania

In response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the US and NATO drastically ramped up defenses across eastern Europe. In Romania, for example, US troop numbers tripled, from approximately 1,000 troops in January of last year to about 3,000 today. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb joined up with some of those soldiers for a first-hand look at how the closest US troops to the war in Ukraine are holding the line with NATO allies.

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Two-Century-Old Mystery of Waterloo’s Skeletal Remains

More than 200 years after Napoleon met defeat at Waterloo, the bones of soldiers killed on that famous battlefield continue to intrigue Belgian researchers and experts, who use them to peer back to that moment in history.

“So many bones — it’s really unique!” exclaimed one such historian, Bernard Wilkin, as he stood in front of a forensic pathologist’s table holding two skulls, three femurs and hip bones.

He was in an autopsy room in the Forensic Medicine Institute in Liege, eastern Belgium, where tests are being carried out on the skeletal remains to determine from which regions the four soldiers they belong to came from.

That in itself is a challenge.

Half a dozen European nationalities were represented in the military ranks at the Battle of Waterloo, located 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Brussels.

That armed clash of June 18, 1815 ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions of conquering Europe to build a great empire, and resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 soldiers.

The battle has since been pored over by historians, and — with advances in the genetic, medical and scanning fields — researchers can now piece together pages of the past from the remains buried in the ground.

Some of those remains have been recovered through archeological digs, such as one last year that allowed the reconstitution of a skeleton found not far from a field hospital the British Duke of Wellington had set up.

But the remains examined by Wilkin surfaced through another route.

‘Prussians in my attic’

The historian, who works for the Belgian government’s historical archives, said he gave a conference late last year and “this middle-aged man came to see afterwards and told me, ‘Mr Wilkin, I have some Prussians in my attic'”.

Wilkin, smiling, said the man “showed me photos on his phone and told me someone had given him these bones so he can put them on exhibit… which he refused to do on ethical grounds”.

The remains stayed hidden away until the man met Wilkin, who he believed could analyze them and give them a decent resting place.

A key item of interest in the collection is a right foot with nearly all its toes — that of a “Prussian soldier” according to the middle-aged man.

“To see a foot so well preserved is pretty rare, because usually the small bones on the extremities disappear into the ground,” noted Mathilde Daumas, an anthropologist at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles who is part of the research work.

As for the attributed “Prussian” provenance, the experts are cautious.

The place it was discovered was the village of Plancenoit, where troops on the Prussian and Napoleonic sides bitterly fought, Wilkin said, holding out the possibility the remains might be those of French soldiers.

Scraps of boots and metal buckles found among the remains do point to uniforms worn by soldiers from the Germanic side arrayed against the French.

But “we know that soldiers stripped the dead for their own gear,” the historian said.

Clothes and accessories are not reliable indicators of the nationality of skeletons found on the Waterloo battlefield, he stressed.

DNA testing

More dependable, these days, are DNA tests.

Dr Philippe Boxho, a forensic pathologist working on the remains, said there were still parts of the bones that should yield DNA results, and he believed another two months of analyses should yield answers.

“As long as the subject matter is dry we can do something. Our biggest enemy is humidity, which makes everything disintegrate,” he explained.

The teeth in particular, with traces of strontium, a naturally occurring chemical element that accumulates in human bones, can point to specific regions through their geology, he said.

Wilkin said an “ideal scenario” for the research would be to find that the remains of the “three to five” soldiers examined came from both the French and Germanic sides.

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Italian Mafia Killer Arrested in France at Pizza Parlor

The downfall of a convicted mafia killer, on the run since 2006, came about in a French pizza parlor.

Edgardo Greco was so confident in his alias as Paolo Dimitrio that he felt free to do an interview with a local Saint-Etienne newspaper in 2021 and even allowed the paper to take and publish a photograph of him.

Greco’s interview about the wonderful Italian cooking at his restaurant in the French newspaper was the beginning of the end for him. The 63-year-old mobster, alleged to be a member of the infamous ‘Ndrangheta organized crime mob, was convicted in an Italian court of the 1991 murders of two brothers whose bodies were never found and the attempted murder of another man.

Italian and French authorities worked together with Interpol, and Greco was identified and arrested.

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US Adds 517,000 Jobs Despite Interest Rate Hikes

America’s employers added a robust 517,000 jobs in January, a surprisingly strong gain in the face of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive drive to slow growth and tame inflation with higher interest rates.

The unemployment rate dipped to 3.4%, a new half-century low.

Friday’s government report added to the picture of a resilient labor market, with low unemployment, relatively few layoffs and many job openings even as most economists foresee a recession nearing. Though good for workers, employers’ steady demand for labor has also helped accelerate wage growth and contributed to high inflation.

January’s job growth, which far exceeded December’s 269,000 gain, could raise doubts about whether inflation pressures will ease further in the months ahead. The Fed has raised its key rate eight times since March to try to contain inflation, which hit a four-decade high last year but has slowed since then.

Companies are still seeking more workers and are hanging tightly onto the ones they have. Putting aside some high-profile layoffs at big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and others, most workers are enjoying an unusual level of job security even at a time when many economists foresee a recession approaching.

For all of 2022, the economy had added a sizzling average of 375,000 jobs a month. That was a pace vigorous enough to have contributed to the painful inflation Americans have endured, the worst such bout in 40 years. A tight job market tends to put upward pressure on wages, which, in turn, feed into inflation.

The Fed, hoping to cool the job market and the economy — and, as a consequence, inflation — has steadily raised borrowing rates, most recently on Wednesday. Year-over-year measures of consumer inflation have steadily eased since peaking at 9.1% in June. But at 6.5% in December, inflation remains far above the Fed’s 2% target, which is why the central bank’s policymakers have reiterated their intent to keep raising borrowing rates for at least a few more months.

The Fed is aiming to achieve a “soft landing” — a pullback in the economy that is just enough to tame high inflation without triggering a recession. The policymakers hope that employers can slow wage increases and inflationary pressures by reducing job openings but not necessarily by laying off many employees.

But the job market’s resilience isn’t making that hoped-for outcome any easier. On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that employers posted 11 million job openings in December, an unexpected jump from 10.4 million in November and the largest number since July. There are now about two job vacancies, on average, for every unemployed American.

The Labor Department’s monthly count of layoffs has amounted to fewer than 1.5 million for 21 straight months. Until 2021, that figure had never dropped so low in records dating back two decades.

Yet another sign that workers are benefiting from unusual job security is the weekly number of people who apply for unemployment benefits. That figure is a proxy for layoffs, one that economists monitor for clues about where the job market might be headed. The government said Thursday that the number of jobless claims fell last week to its lowest level since April.

The pace of applications for unemployment aid has remained rock-bottom despite a steady stream of headline-making layoff announcements. Facebook parent Meta is cutting 11,000 jobs, Amazon 18,000, Microsoft 10,000, Google 12,000. Some economists suspect that many laid-off workers might not be showing up at the unemployment line because they can still find new jobs easily.

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US Experiencing Artic Blast

The northeastern region of the U.S. is experiencing an Artic blast and the frigid temperatures are expected to last into Saturday.  

The National Weather Service said numerous low temperature records could be set in the New England area.  

Weather forecasters predict the temperature Saturday in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, could get as low as 23 degrees below zero Celsius, which would set a new low record for the date.  

Meteorologists are predicting 21 degrees below zero Celsius for Boston, which would also set a low record for the date.

The NWS said wind chill warnings and advisories are already in effect for all of the New England region.  

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NATO Urges Russia to Comply With Last US Nuclear Treaty

NATO on Friday expressed concern that Russia was failing to comply with its last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. 

As tensions soar over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading NATO power the United States has accused Moscow of not meeting its commitments under the decade-old New START pact. 

On Tuesday, Washington slammed Russia for suspending inspections under the treaty and cancelling talks but did not accuse its Cold War rival of expanding its nuclear warhead arsenal beyond agreed limits.

“NATO allies agree the New START treaty contributes to international stability by constraining Russian and US strategic nuclear forces,” the 30-strong alliance said in a statement. 

“Therefore, we note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally binding obligations under the New START treaty.”

NATO member states said they “call on Russia to fulfil its obligations” by allowing inspections and returning to talks. 

Russia has hit back at Washington by accusing it of destroying weapons control agreements between the two countries. 

Diplomacy between the two powers has ground to a bare minimum over the past year as the United States leads a drive to sanction Russia and arm Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, reviving Cold War era fears.

Moscow announced in early August that it was suspending U.S. inspections of its military sites under New START. It said it was responding to American obstruction of inspections by Russia, a charge denied by Washington.

The Kremlin then indefinitely postponed talks under New START that had been due to start on November 29 in Cairo, accusing the United States of “toxicity and animosity.” 

New START, signed by then President Barack Obama in 2010 when relations were warmer, restricted Russia and the United States to a maximum of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each — a reduction of nearly 30 percent from the previous limit set in 2002. 

It also limits the number of launchers and heavy bombers to 800, still easily enough to destroy human life on Earth.

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Pope Wraps Up Congo Visit, Heads to Volatile South Sudan

Pope Francis wraps up an emotional visit to Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday and heads to neighboring South Sudan, another nation struggling to overcome decades of conflict and grinding poverty.

The country’s woes were underscored on the eve of his arrival, when 27 people were killed in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria state in tit-for-tat violence between cattle herders and a local militia.

The pope is set to arrive in South Sudan on Friday from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping to jolt a peace process aimed at ending a decade of conflict fought mostly on ethnic lines that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The 86-year-old pontiff, on his third visit to sub-Saharan Africa since his papacy began in 2013, was given a rapturous welcome by huge crowds in the Congolese capital Kinshasa but also confronted the reality of war, poverty and hunger.

On Wednesday, he heard harrowing stories from victims of conflict in eastern Congo who had witnessed the killings of close relatives and been subjected to sexual slavery, amputation and forced cannibalism.

The pope condemned the atrocities as war crimes and appealed to all parties, internal and external, who orchestrate war in Congo to plunder the country’s vast mineral resources to stop getting rich with “money stained with blood.”

Eastern Congo has been plagued for decades by conflict driven in part by the struggle for control of deposits of diamonds, gold and other precious metals between the government, rebels and foreign invaders. The spillover and long fallout from neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide have also fueled violence.

Francis returned again and again to the theme of conflict fueled by “the poison of greed,” saying the Congolese people and the wider world should realize that people were more precious than the minerals in the earth beneath them.

After a meeting with Congolese bishops in Kinshasa on Friday morning and a farewell ceremony at the airport, his plane is scheduled to take off at 0940 GMT, heading for Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where it is expected to land around 1300 GMT.

The pope will be joined for the whole of his visit to South Sudan by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.

It is the first joint foreign trip by the three Christian leaders, who have called it a “pilgrimage of peace.”

Welby said he was horrified by the latest killings on the day before the pilgrimage.

“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he said on Twitter.

South Sudan broke away from Sudan to become independent in 2011 after decades of north-south conflict, but civil war erupted in 2013. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, violence and hunger still plague the country.

Francis has wanted to visit the predominantly Christian country for years but each time planning for a trip began it had to be postponed because of instability on the ground.

In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to civil war.

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VOA’s Firsthand Look at US Troops Closest to Ukraine Fight

On a freezing, windy day in eastern Romania, U.S. Army Sergeant Chase Williams is urging a team of soldiers to jump out of a hovering Blackhawk and rappel 25 meters to the snow-covered ground below.

“You know you just got to get over that fear. You just got to get over that ledge the first time,” Williams says of the 101st Airborne Division’s Air Assault course, a grueling program that some soldiers refer to as “the 10 toughest days in the Army.”

Williams and his fellow trainers have taught the 10-day program several times since last summer when 4,700 troops with the 101st Airborne Division deployed across eastern Europe, but the iteration completed this week was unique. For the first time ever, soldiers in the division offered their punishing air assault course to partners on European soil.

Graduates from the course at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base included U.S., Romanian, Dutch, French and Slovak soldiers.

It’s the latest example of how the division, deployed to Europe for the first time since World War II, is bolstering NATO’s eastern flank in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In Romania, U.S. troop numbers have tripled from approximately 1,000 troops in January 2022 to about 3,000 today. A high-end missile launched from Russian-controlled Crimea could reach the soldiers based along the Black Sea in about seven minutes, according to U.S. Army Colonel Ed Matthaidess, commander of the 101st’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

“We are the closest U.S. Army formation to the fight in Ukraine right now,” Matthaidess told VOA.

Since their arrival, the 101st has spread out to fortify its positions across the country, and in other nations on NATO’s eastern flank.

“We’ve prepared our force for whatever eventuality, so we’ve reinforced protection around Mihail Kogalniceanu. We’ve dispersed our forces so we’re not a single target,” Matthaidess said.

During a helicopter ride along Romania’s coastline to the border with Ukraine, Matthaidess showed VOA how U.S. forces are holding the line with NATO allies.

“We’re taking it as close as we can to combat, right? So, we’re preparing for large-scale operations,” he said. “We’re exercising on the ground with which we might fight if we have to defend NATO.”

At a forward operating post just a few kilometers away from Ukrainian territory, several Humvees — some capable of carrying TOW antitank missiles, others equipped with a heavy machine gun or heavy grenade launcher — were gathering at a range for target practice.

Further south at an outpost filled with old farm buildings, U.S. soldiers trained Romanians on how to maneuver in urban terrain, going door-to-door clearing the area.

Matthaidess said the U.S. team has been watching Russian tactics in neighboring Ukraine “closely” and has adapted their training with partners to better suit what they see on the battlefield.

“We just got done with a big series of live fires, where we were attacking some trench lines that look very similar to what you might see across the border,” he told VOA.

The team also started incorporating small drones in some exercises, shooting down systems “very similar to what’s flooding the battlefield right now” in Ukraine, he added.

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team will leave Romania in a couple of months, but the Pentagon recently confirmed that the U.S. military’s increased presence in the country will continue at least through this year. The 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is set to replace Matthaidess’ team in what is expected to be a nine-month deployment.

That’s reassuring to Major General Ciprian Marin, chief of the Romanian military’s Operations Directorate, who says he wants more U.S. troops and more partnered training.

During the 101st Airborne Division’s deployment, Romanian forces have been honing their existing defense skills with the Americans, while in the case of the air assault course, acquiring a new capability that Romanian ground forces didn’t have before this week.

“With war, it’s about life and death, and [working together] makes the difference between failure and success. So, if you want to be successful, we are to be together, to stick together, and build this interoperability,” Marin said.

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Don’t Underestimate Xi’s Ambitions Toward Taiwan, CIA Says

CIA Director William Burns said Thursday that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions toward Taiwan should not be underestimated, despite him likely being sobered by the performance of Russia’s military in Ukraine.

Burns said that the United States knew “as a matter of intelligence” that Xi had ordered his military to be ready to conduct an invasion of self-governed Taiwan by 2027.

“Now, that does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition,” Burns told an event at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,” he said, adding that the Chinese leader was likely “surprised and unsettled” and trying to draw lessons by the “very poor performance” of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.

Russia and China signed a “no limits” partnership last February shortly before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and their economic links have boomed as Russia’s connections with the West have shriveled.

The Russian invasion had fueled concerns in the West of China possibly making a similar move on Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing claims as its territory.

China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine, but it has been careful not to provide the sort of direct material support that could provoke Western sanctions like those imposed on Moscow.

“I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the mutual commitment to that partnership, but it’s not a friendship totally without limits,” Burns said.

As Burns spoke, news came from U.S. officials that a suspected Chinese spy balloon had been flying over the United States for a few days, and that senior U.S. officials had advised President Joe Biden against shooting it down for fear the debris could pose a safety threat.

Burns made no mention of the episode but called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently faced by the United States.

“Competition with China is unique in its scale, and that it really, you know, unfolds over just about every domain, not just military, and ideological, but economic, technological, everything from cyberspace, to space itself as well. It’s a global competition in ways that could be even more intense than competition with the Soviets was,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from China’s Washington embassy about the remarks from Burns or the balloon flight.

On other topics, Burns said the next six months will be critical for Ukraine, where Moscow has been making incremental gains in recent weeks.

He also said Iran’s government was increasingly unsettled by affairs within the country, citing the courage of what he described as “fed up” Iranian women. 

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Russia Developing Weapons to Target Critical Subsea Cables, Pipelines

Western naval forces are having to adapt to a new threat as Russia and other military powers develop new capabilities to target critical undersea infrastructure such as pipelines and cables.

The vulnerability of such infrastructure has long been recognized. Those concerns turned to reality in September last year, as the Nord Stream pipelines that carried gas from Russia to Germany ruptured spectacularly on the Baltic seabed near the Danish island of Bornholm, sending huge volumes of gas bubbling to the surface.

Swedish investigators found traces of explosives at the site. The West suspects Russia of sabotage. The Kremlin denies this and accuses Western nations of staging the attack.

“There has been a growing awareness of the vulnerability of critical national infrastructure, but the event in the Baltic Sea certainly brought the issue into sharp relief,” said analyst Sidharth Kaushal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, author of a recent report titled Navies and Economic Warfare.

 

Subsea defense

Days after the incident, Britain announced plans to enhance its undersea defense capabilities.

“Our internet and energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said October 2. “Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure. So for that reason, I can announce we’ve recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.”

The first of those vessels is being fitted out by the British navy at a shipyard outside Liverpool and is due to enter service this year. It is designed to act as a “mother ship,” operating remote and autonomous systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.

Millions of kilometers of undersea cables and pipelines carry the energy and data that power the global economy, Kaushal said. “A number of challengers to the West, Russia most notably, are developing bespoke capabilities to target precisely these vulnerabilities, things like special purpose submarines,” he told VOA.

Russia denies sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines. But observers say the Kremlin increasingly sees Western subsea infrastructure as a vulnerability. In December, President Vladimir Putin oversaw the launch of four new naval vessels, including two nuclear-powered submarines. “They have highly accurate weapons and robotic complexes,” Putin announced.

NATO

Faced with that threat, NATO and the European Union last month launched a joint task force on protecting critical infrastructure. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg outlined the alliance’s posture at a meeting of defense ministers in October.

“Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response. … Hybrid and cyberattacks can trigger Article 5 [on collective self-defense], can constitute an armed attack against a NATO ally,” Stoltenberg said October 11.

The West must clarify its rules of engagement, analyst Kaushal said.

“What does one actually do when one observes, for example, a submarine tampering with critical national infrastructure, but not in a way that necessarily leads to an immediate loss of life?” Kaushal said.

“So actually, it’s more a question of how you change organizational practices to deal with this sort of activity.”

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US Reunites Nearly 700 Kids Taken from Parents Under Trump

A Biden administration task force designed to reunite children separated from their families during the Trump administration has reconnected nearly 700 children with their families, officials said Thursday.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office to reunite families that were split up under Trump’s widely condemned practice of forcibly separating parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage illegal immigration. Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the task force.

According to figures released by the Department of Homeland Security, 3,881 children were separated from their families from 2017 to 2021. About 74% of those have been reunited with their families: 2,176 before the task force was created and 689 afterward.

But that still leaves nearly 1,000 children. Of those, 148 are in the reunification process. The department pledged to continue the work until all separated families that can be found have the opportunity to reunite with their children.

The Trump administration separated thousands of migrant parents from their children as it moved to criminally prosecute people for illegally crossing the southwestern border. Minors, who could not be held in criminal custody with their parents, were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. They were then typically sent to live with a sponsor, often a relative or someone else with a connection to the family.

Hundreds of families have sued the federal government.

Families can register for reunification services through a website and can get help with steps such as applying for humanitarian parole that would allow them to come to the U.S., as well as for behavioral health services to help them.

During a meeting Thursday with reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas discussed efforts to address “the wounds” the separations had caused.

He described meeting the mother of a teenager who had been separated from her mom when she was 13 and then reunited with her when she was 16. But Mayorkas said, the woman relayed how her teenage daughter “still could not understand how her mother would let her be separated. She didn’t understand the force behind the separation.”

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US Reunites Nearly 700 Kids Taken from Parents Under Trump

A Biden administration task force designed to reunite children separated from their families during the Trump administration has reconnected nearly 700 children with their families, officials said Thursday.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office to reunite families that were split up under Trump’s widely condemned practice of forcibly separating parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage illegal immigration. Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the task force.

According to figures released by the Department of Homeland Security, 3,881 children were separated from their families from 2017 to 2021. About 74% of those have been reunited with their families: 2,176 before the task force was created and 689 afterward.

But that still leaves nearly 1,000 children. Of those, 148 are in the reunification process. The department pledged to continue the work until all separated families that can be found have the opportunity to reunite with their children.

The Trump administration separated thousands of migrant parents from their children as it moved to criminally prosecute people for illegally crossing the southwestern border. Minors, who could not be held in criminal custody with their parents, were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. They were then typically sent to live with a sponsor, often a relative or someone else with a connection to the family.

Hundreds of families have sued the federal government.

Families can register for reunification services through a website and can get help with steps such as applying for humanitarian parole that would allow them to come to the U.S., as well as for behavioral health services to help them.

During a meeting Thursday with reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas discussed efforts to address “the wounds” the separations had caused.

He described meeting the mother of a teenager who had been separated from her mom when she was 13 and then reunited with her when she was 16. But Mayorkas said, the woman relayed how her teenage daughter “still could not understand how her mother would let her be separated. She didn’t understand the force behind the separation.”

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