India reacts with grief, outrage over Wisconsin killing of Sikhs

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NEW DELHI -- India reacted with grief and outrage at the news that at least six Sikhs were killed when a gunman attacked them Sunday in their Wisconsin temple as they prayed and prepared food.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, said in a statement Monday that he was shocked and saddened by the news and extended his condolences to the families of the victims.

“India stands in solidarity with all the peace-loving Americans who have condemned this violence,” he said, adding that he hoped “such violent acts are not repeated in the future.”

PHOTOS: Gunman opened fire at Sikh temple

On Sunday, a gunman said to be tattooed, white and in his 40s opened fire on worshippers at a suburban Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Oak Creek, Wisc., before he was shot dead by police. His motives were not clear, although local police labeled it a case of “domestic terrorism.” Initial reports were that he acted alone. The FBI has launched an investigation.

India has a growing problem with gun violence, and ranks second worldwide in absolute numbers of civilian guns at 40 million, according to gunpolicy.org, a website hosted by the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney in Australia. However, guns and ammunition are strictly regulated in India and their numbers and use pales beside America’s estimated 270 million firearms. India has more than 3 guns for every 100 people, compared with about 89 guns per 100 Americans, the world leaders.

“The gun culture in America is a bit disturbing,” said Rohan Sabharwal, 23, a Sikh dressed in an orange turban shopping in a Delhi market. “It’s a sad, regrettable thing to have this happen.”

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No imminent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, experts say

Mitt Romney in Jerusalem
Israeli and U.S. politicians lately have been bandying about the prospect of an airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities, stirring fear that another destabilizing clash could be provoked in a region already rife with civil war in Syria and other religious and political tensions.

GlobalFocusBut nonproliferation experts and Middle East analysts are skeptical of Israeli claims that the Tehran regime is so close to building a nuclear weapon that time is running out for a peaceful resolution of the decades-long standoff.

"This is a window that has been closing for 15 years now, and it's always imminently about to close," said Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council. He sees the sudden flurry of diplomacy between Jerusalem and Washington as an outgrowth of the U.S. presidential campaign and Israeli interest in ensuring that the United States continues to hold a hard line against Iran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was in Jerusalem on Wednesday to urge Israeli leaders to let negotiations and sanctions do their work before unleashing any military strike at facilities where Iran is suspected of enriching uranium or storing the processed fuel for potential upgrading to weapons' quality.

His visit followed one Sunday by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate who put the political spotlight on tension between the nation and Iran by promising to "respect" any decision Israel's leadership takes to protect itself.

The high-profile visits gave a platform to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to proclaim Israeli impatience with diplomacy and sanctions, which he claimed had "not set back the Iranian program by one iota."

Netanyahu complained that "however forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them." He put Panetta on notice that Israel is prepared to act alone in attacking Iran if it perceives itself to be at risk.

Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, said Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak used the American visits to send a message to Tehran that Israel won't hesitate to take unilateral action.

Ben-Meir cautions U.S. and other officials against seeing the Israeli threats as mere posturing, pointing out the profound national security concerns that shape Israeli defense policy and the country's unshakable faith that Washington will come to its rescue if a strike against Iran triggers retaliation by Tehran or its well-armed allies in the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.

"I don’t think Israel is bluffing entirely. There is an element of exaggerating its readiness to act and likelihood of winning. But many advisors to Prime Minister Netanyahu are saying that if he waits six or eight months, they may end up unable to do anything significant in terms of damage" to nuclear facilities that Iran has been moving underground to protect them from airstrikes,  Ben-Meir said.

The veteran analyst of Israeli politics said talks between U.S. and Israeli security officials are focused on a possible "insurance policy" for Israel: The United States would provide bombs capable of penetrating and destroying underground facilities. In close consultation with Washington, the bombs could be used against buried Iranian nuclear sites at a later date, allowing Israel to refrain from any military action now that could embroil the U.S. in another war on the eve of the presidential election.

Threats of military action against Iran are spurred by Israel's frustration with the paltry progress being made at recently resumed negotiations between Iran and six major powers. The talks are aimed at ensuring that Iranian programs are limited to peaceful purposes like energy production and medical research, said Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, a nonproliferation scholar at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"I don’t see any particular breakthroughs in the Iranian program. It's been on a pretty steady course," she said, adding that, as far as preemptive air strikes were concerned, "there is technically no urgency to do this."

Three rounds of high-level talks between Tehran and diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany have failed to produce concessions from either side, and trade sanctions that were tightened last month have succeeded mostly in depriving average Iranians of food and fuel, rather than pushing the regime to open more of its nuclear activities to international inspection.

Still, those pressures are mounting on Iran and raising the cost -- both financially and politically -- of the regime's nuclear pursuits, said Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst on Iran for Rand Corp. He pointed to reports of Iranian demonstrations against rising food prices and shortages, along with demands, even from Iranian elites, that the government give priority to social needs over nuclear investments.

"According to the U.S. intelligence community, the Iranian leadership hasn't even made the decision to weaponize their program,"  Nader said. "They've been creating the technical know-how and the infrastructure, but they haven't made that decision, and there is much more time than the Israelis portray there to be. I don't think an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is inevitable or imminent."

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Photo: Mitt Romney's visit to Jerusalem on Sunday set off a cascade of Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future to prevent Tehran from acquiring an atomic-weapons capability. Middle East experts say there is little evidence of an imminent threat from Iran and that the Israeli and U.S. statements are mostly politically driven saber-rattling. Credit: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images


Syria says chemical weapons are secure, warns against foreign attack

MakdissiJERUSALEM -- As Israel ramped up its threat to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons cache, Syria’s embattled government said Monday that its weapons were secure and they would not use them -- unless provoked by an outside attack.

“No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said during a news conference broadcast on state television. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”

The comments, which were widely viewed as Syria’s first official acknowledgment that it possesses such weapons, came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his sternest warning yet that Israel might take action to prevent Syria’s weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Islamic extremists.

Netanyahu said Israel is particularly worried about what might happen to the stockpiles in the event that the Assad regime falls and the country descends into chaos or civil war.

“This is something we’ll have to act to stop if the need arises," he told Fox News on Sunday. “And the need might arise if there’s a regime collapse, but not a regime change, that is you go into some chaos and all these sundry sites are left unguarded.”

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Tension over downed Turkish jet shows risk of Syria spillover

NATO headquarters in Brussels
In the four days since Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish military jet, attempts by Ankara and Damascus to contain the security fallout have given way to accusations, veiled threats and fears of a widening regional conflict.

GlobalFocusThe downing of the F-4 Phantom jet, which was condemned by European Union foreign ministers on Monday, served as a stark reminder of the risks of unintended spillover from Syria's 16-month-old clash between government forces and rebels.

Diplomatic reaction to the incident also has spotlighted the inability of the international community to do more than issue verbal censure and revisit already rejected proposals for more forceful intervention.

“I think it is still important that we continue to work on a political solution," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Luxembourg, where his EU colleagues condemned Syria's downing of the plane as "unacceptable" but made clear there was no appetite for military measures to restrain Damascus.

Recent massacres in Syria have sent thousands fleeting into Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, spurring outcries from those countries over the security and humanitarian burdens imposed by large numbers of displaced opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria's downing of the F-4 heightened tensions with once-allied Turkey, which called on the NATO alliance to review the incident and discuss how the 28-state North Atlantic Council should respond. But Ankara showed restraint -- this time -- in declining to call for retaliation for the assault on a member state.

"I think this was an exclamation point but not necessarily a turning point" in the Syrian conflict's risks for the region, said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy. "It was an event that shows how close the forces are and how carelessness on one side or another can lead to something significant."

The Syrian air defense unit that fired on the F-4 was guarding the port of Latakia and may have been following orders to prevent any aerial reconnaissance by foreign aircraft, Ries said. He speculated that the Syrians may have been unloading weapons or other sensitive cargo.

While the downing of the Turkish plane has riled Syria's neighbors, it isn't likely to step up the pressure for NATO or other foreign forces to declare no-fly zones to ground Assad's air assets, said Ries.

"This is a good illustration of how difficult a military task it would be to impose a no-fly zone over the region. Unlike the Libyans, Syria has sophisticated antiaircraft defenses, and it would be much more dangerous and difficult a task," Ries said, contrasting the challenge of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria with the easier task accomplished by NATO in Libya last year.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also sees Syrian air defenses  as a more daunting risk for the West should it opt for more aggressive intervention. He said any attempt by the international community to hamper Assad's air operations would require more preliminary strikes against Syrian air defenses than were needed in Libya.

"I don't think the shoot-down revealed any new Syrian capabilities or tactics -- nothing that Washington didn't already know," Wehrey said. "It does show the Syrians have hair-trigger rules of engagement."

Of greater concern to Middle East analysts monitoring the Syrian crisis are the refugee outflows that are imposing humanitarian burdens on such countries as Turkey, where the displaced are said to number upward of 30,000, and putting strains on delicate ethnic and sectarian balances, most precariously in Lebanon.

"The Turks have already been drawn in by the large numbers of refugees from Syria, and by their support for some elements of the Free Syrian Army," said Mohamad Bazzi, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar of Middle East affairs.

Syria has justified its action in shooting down the F-4 with claims that it felt threatened by the air-space incursion, an apologetic posture likely to allow shaken relations with Turkey to settle down over time as long as it remains an isolated incident, Bazzi said.

"They can be trigger-happy once, but they are not going to get away with it again," Bazzi said, pointing to reports that Syrian air defenses shot at a second Turkish plane on Monday.

Analysts see a wave of defections from Syria's military in recent days as evidence that Assad is losing his grip on the armed forces. Turkey's Anadolu news agency reported 33 soldiers defected to the rebel side early Monday, including a general and two colonels.

"There are indications that the Syrian military is spread more thinly now than at the beginning," Bazzi said. "There have been reports for months now that various military units have been confined to barracks because the regime is worried about large-scale defections."

That is a development that heralds the eventual toppling of Assad, the experts said, but it also raises the risk of accelerating cross-border flows of refugees, fighters and weapons in the meantime.

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Photo: NATO headquarters in Brussels, where diplomats of the 28-state North Atlantic Council were summoned by Turkey on Tuesday to discuss Syria's downing of its F-4 military jet . Credit:  Virginia Mayo / Associated Press

 


Israel watches Egyptian elections as rockets hit its south

Egypt voting
REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM — As voters in Egypt cast presidential ballots on Sunday, Israelis next door remained watchful and wary, with few comments from official speakers.

The silence, however, was punctuated by the sounds of rockets launched at southern Israel over the weekend, which Israeli security officials said appear to have been fired from the northern Sinai.

Though denied by Egyptian sources, Israeli security sources were quoted in Israeli media claiming the rockets were fired by a Hamas-affiliated group of Bedouins at the request of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, denied the organization was involved.

Regardless of who launched the rockets, their firing is evidence of the chaos in Sinai as several antagonists of Israel try to foster bad relations between the neighbors, said Yom-Tov Samia, formerly in charge of Israel's southern command.

But peace between the neighbors remains is a first-rate strategic interest for both, Samia added in a radio interview, noting that Egypt does not have the resources for armed conflict and Israel already faces uncertain scenarios with Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, former defense minister and among the Israeli politicians to have the warmest ties with Mubarak's Egypt, told media that regardless of what side wins the Egyptian elections, channels of dialogue between the two countries must be maintained. "I trust the government to find the right way to Egypt's new leadership, even the Muslim Brotherhood," he said, "whoever is elected will soon realize his first problem is feeding millions. Conflict with Israel will not feed them."

Ben-Eliezer too hopes the new leadership understands that "peace, good neighborly relations and trade ties with Israel are an express Egyptian interest."

Like others, he warns that lawlessness in Sinai is a regional threat. "Sinai has become a place where terrorists from all far-flung corners of the globe feel at home. There's no way this can continue and no Egyptian government will accept it either," he said.

Relations with Israel are something of an election issue but "not the highest priority on Egypt's national agenda," according to former ambassador to Cairo Eli Shaked, who also believes new Egyptian leaders will have to tend to pressing socio-economic matters.

With a paralyzed economy and declines in tourism, Egypt will need billions of dollars in aid, Shaked says, far more than U.S. aid and trade agreements related to the peace treaty with Israel. But if that doesn't happen, Shaked fears Israel and the entire Middle East "could suffer when it turns out that the new government of Egypt has no solutions to the country's socio-economic problems either."

Israeli experts view an ongoing power vacuum in the Sinai as having potentially serious security and economic implications. The repeated sabotage of the natural gas pipeline in Sinai has disrupted Israel's energy plans and raised the cost of electricity to both consumers and environment.

But ultimately, Samia says, Israel's main concern is "not what happens in Sinai but what happens at Tahrir Square," the bottom line of Israel's concerns being that the peace is preserved.

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Photo: An Egyptian woman shows her ID to the polling station chief during the second day of the presidential runoff election in Alexandria, Egypt, on Sunday. Credit: Manu Brabo / Associated Press

 

 

 


North Korea rocket launch reportedly fails

Japan korea rocket

This post has been updated. See the note below.

BEIJING --  North Korea launched a three-stage rocket from a missile base near the west coast city of Sinuiju today, claiming that it was carrying a weather satellite of purely civilian use. [Updated 4:35 p.m. Thursday, April 12: But U.S. officials said the rocket broke apart shortly after launch.]

Its projected trajectory was almost due south on a course 150 miles east of Shanghai.  The second stage of the rock was to splash down east of the Philippines, which prompted Manila to cancel northbound flights as a precaution.

The rocket, named Unha-3 and emblazoned with a North Korean flag, was based on the same technology as the long-range Taepodong missile that the country is developing, which has triggered accusations that North Korea is actually conducting a weapons test.

Since 1998, Pyongyang has conducted three previous long-range launches but has not succeeded in sending a satellite into orbit, although it has claimed otherwise.

Today’s launch will be closely analyzed to determine how far North Korea has advanced its technological prowess.

"If they actually are successful, they can in theory deliver a weapon with a range sufficient to reach the United States," said Scott Snyder, an analyst from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The launch occurred despite  warnings from the United States, as well as China and Russia.

“We don't really care about the opinions from the outside. This is critical in order to develop our national economy,” Paek Chang Ho, head of the satellite control center at the Korean Committee for Space Technology, had told reporters who were invited to North Korea for the occasion.

Paek said that a weather satellite had been installed on the rocket as part of North Korea’s “peaceful space program,”  but officials of the U.S. and other countries fear that North Korea’s missile program  masks an effort to develop a delivery system for a nuclear weapon.

The rocket launch was the centerpiece of celebrations taking place this week to mark the centennial of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, April 15, 1912 — the same day, North Koreans sometimes note with irony, as the sinking of the Titanic.

The launch also served as a distraction from the despair in one of the world’s hungriest nations. One-third of North Korean children are reported to be permanently stunted because of chronic malnutrition. North Korea recently had to lower the minimum height requirement for soldiers to 4 feet, 9 inches.

The Defense Ministry in rival South Korea released figures this week saying that North Korea could afford to feed its population for a year with the money it is spending on the missile launch.

North Korea struck a deal Feb. 29 to suspend its weapons program in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States, but the U.S. had said the aid would not be delivered if North Korea went ahead with the launch.

The rapid collapse of the deal raises the possibility of a rift in the leadership between those who would like to end North Korea’s pariah status and hard-liners in the military.

 

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-- Barbara Demick

Photo: Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel guard a Patriot air defense system that was on standby to respond to a North Korean long-range missile launch. Credit: Hitoshi Maeshiro / EPA 

 



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