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US President Barack Obama agreed to hold off a controversial decision on sending arms to Ukraine until German-led efforts to broker a ceasefire with Russia are given a chance.

Hosting Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, Obama said he hoped she could reach a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end 10 months of bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, but warned more punitive measures are in the pipeline if that fails.

Steep Western sanctions and low oil prices have crippled Russia’s economy but have so far failed to dissuade Putin’s government from backing Ukrainian separatists. Moscow denies it is doing so.

“My hope is that through these diplomatic efforts those costs have become high enough that Mr Putin’s preferred option is for a diplomatic resolution,” Obama said.

“I won’t prejudge whether or not they’ll be successful,” he added. “If they are not, then we will want to raise the costs. And we will not relent in that.”

Obama indicated that further sanctions and “lethal defense” assistance are now on the table, but said no decision had been made yet.

Merkel has opposed sending arms, warning it would further escalate a war that Ukraine cannot win against the much larger and better equipped pro-Russian forces.

But she acknowledged that a drive to reach a ceasefire deal with Putin — after he reneged on a previous agreement — may not succeed.

“We have no guarantee,” she said in a joint press conference ahead of further talks this week. “I cannot give you a guarantee for the outcome of the Wednesday talks and maybe nothing will come out of it.

“I, myself, would not be able to live without having made this attempt.”

– ‘Order of Europe’ –

The conflict has already killed more than 5,000 people.

With violence escalating by the day, the stakes have become ever-higher as Russian-armed rebels have eaten further into Ukrainian territory.

“If we give up the principle of territorial integrity, we will not be able to maintain the peaceful order of Europe,” warned Merkel, who later took her plea for time to strike a peace deal to Canada.

Obama lent credence to the view that Ukraine, Russia and the whole of Europe is now at a fork in the road.

“We’re in absolute agreement that the 21st century cannot stand idle, have us stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

Republicans lambasted Obama for engaging in more talk and accused him of abandoning Ukraine.

“President Obama’s continual weakness in the face of aggression is making the world a more dangerous place,” stormed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

“It’s a sad fact that our enemies are seldom challenged while our friends are constantly undercut and abandoned.”

Officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are still hammering out the details for a four-way summit slated for Wednesday.

Ahead of the possible meeting in Minsk, the European Union decided to hold off implementing new sanctions against Russia, giving space for talks.

“The implementation was delayed for several days at the request of Ukrainians who wanted that the other side has less pretext to refuse negotiations or negotiate in an unconstructive manner in Minsk summit on Wednesday, if it happens,” Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.

EU foreign ministers had been set to formally sign off on adding 19 more people to a sanctions list over Moscow’s backing of the separatists.

– Sticking points –

Putin has warned that a “number of points” still needed to be agreed before the Minsk meeting can take place and wrangling was set to be intense as foreign ministry officials from the four nations met in Berlin.

Based on a largely ignored peace deal agreed in September in Minsk, the new plan may extend rebel control over territory the rebels have seized in recent weeks, although Kiev is adamant the demarcation line agreed in September should not be shifted.

French President Francois Hollande has said the proposal includes the creation of a 50 to 70-kilometer (31 to 44-mile) demilitarized zone around the current frontline.

The issues on the table include questions about levels of regional autonomy and future elections in rebel-controlled areas, said German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer.

Fresh fighting over the past 24 hours between Ukraine government forces and pro-Russian rebels left at least 11 civilians and nine Ukrainian troops dead, Kiev said.

Ukraine’s military said that 1,500 Russian troops and convoys of military hardware had crossed into the country over the weekend.

US warns on political ‘fairness’

Posted by pakin On January - 27 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

The first senior US envoy to visit Thailand since the May 22 coup last year voiced grave concerns Monday over the political situation in the country, particularly judicial standards, curbs on freedom, and martial law.

Speaking at a conference on US engagement in Asia held at Chulalongkorn University, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel raised worries about judicial fairness, which is part of the process to promote political reconciliation.

Mr Russel said the perception of fairness, or lack thereof, would affect Thailand’s position in the international community.

“When an elected leader is deposed from office, then impeached by the authority that implemented the coup — and is being targeted with criminal charges while basic democratic processes and institutions are interrupted, the international community is left with the impression that these steps could, in fact, be politically driven,” he said, without identifying any leader in particular but clearly referring to former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra who was impeached by the coup-installed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) last week.

Mr Russel discussed political issues with Ms Yingluck, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, and Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn and all of them emphasised the importance of reconciliation and working towards the same democratic goal.

However, Mr Russel insisted the US does not take sides in Thai politics but it is concerned about restraints on freedom of speech and public gatherings.

“I understand that this is a very sensitive issue, and so I bring it up with humility and respect for the Thai people.

“The US does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and assembly,” he said.

Washington’s envoy also conveyed the US administration’s worries regarding significant curbs on freedoms since the military putsch.

Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions on speech and assembly would be important steps towards a genuinely inclusive reform process which would reflect the broad diversity in the country, he said.

Regarding the reform process, Mr Russel called for a more inclusive political reform process to incorporate all components of Thai society. He insisted that only a truly inclusive reorganisation of the political system could lead to reconciliation and subsequently, long-term stability.

Mr Russel said the US administration hopes to see a political process which would reinforce the confidence of the Thai people in its government as well as judicial institutions that build confidence internationally. These moves would show that Thailand is moving towards a stable and participatory democracy.

The US envoy, however, reaffirmed the nations’ long-standing relations, even though they were affected by last year’s coup. “Our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military-coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago,” Mr Russel said.

However, Thailand is a long-time friend and an important ally of the US and both countries have a long-standing history of broad cooperation in a wide range of issues, he said.

“We care deeply about this relationship and we care deeply about our friendship with all the Thai people,” he said.

The US has a huge interest in Thailand’s success, he added.

Earlier in the day, Mr Russel and Gen Tanasak, the foreign minister, held a meeting where Mr Tanasak, under instructions from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, tried to convince the US that Thailand is on the path to democracy.

Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sek Wannamethee, said after the meeting that Gen Tanasak explained to the US envoy that martial law is still necessary to maintain peace and order. Gen Tanasak also maintained that the country is following its democratic roadmap.

“The US envoy reaffirmed the US-Thai diplomatic relationship and engagement in several issues which have received international concern such as transnational crime, terrorism and deadly epidemics,” Mr Sek said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said the impeachment of Ms Yingluck was not discussed in the meeting.

Gen Prayut, meanwhile, played down the visit saying the US had every right to send envoys to foreign countries. He has also learned that the new US ambassador to Thailand will arrive next month. “I think the US can differentiate between what is happening here. We are still doing business together while the military drill [Cobra Gold] is on schedule,” Gen Prayut said.

“We have to jointly explain the reason and necessity for the coup and why we have this government to run the country. Thailand has faced a number of political problems and protests for years. If we’d ignored the problems, the situation would worsen and more people would have lost their lives,” Gen Prayut said.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University, said the level of US-Thai engagement remains limited amid the current political situation. “Many of the things the assistant secretary of state said are not new to us,” he said.

Mr Thitinan is a frequent contributor to the Oped page, Bangkok Post.

US: N. Korea behind Sony hack

Posted by pakin On December - 18 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators have now connected the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. to North Korea, a US official said Wednesday, though it remained unclear how the federal government would respond to a break-in that exposed sensitive documents and ultimately led to terrorist threats against moviegoers.

The official, who said a more formal statement could come in the near future, spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to openly discuss an on-going criminal case.

Until Wednesday, the Obama administration had been saying it was not immediately clear who might have been responsible for the computer break-in. North Korea has publicly denied it was involved.

The unidentified hackers had demanded that Sony cancel its upcoming release of the movie The Interview, a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that included a gruesome scene depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader. Sony on Wednesday cancelled the Dec. 25 release, citing the threats of violence against movie theatres, and the movie studio later said there were no further plans to release the film.

The disclosure about North Korea’s involvement came just after Sony hired FireEye Inc.’s Mandiant forensics unit, which last year published a landmark report with evidence accusing a Chinese Army organization, Unit 61398, of hacking into more than 140 companies over the years. Tracing the origins of hacker break-ins and identities of those responsible is exceedingly difficult and often involves surmise and circumstantial evidence, but Mandiant’s work on its highly regarded China investigation provides some clues to its methods.

Investigators will disassemble any hacking tools left behind at the crime scene and – similar to bomb detectives – scour them for unique characteristics that might identify who built or deployed them. Hints about origin might include a tool’s programming code, how or when it was activated and where in the world it transmitted any stolen materials.

In some cases, investigators will trace break-ins by hackers to “command and control” computers or web servers, and logs in those machines or information in Internet registration records might provide further clues about who is behind the hack. Sometimes, hackers using aliases are identified on social media networks or in chat rooms discussing targets or techniques. Mandiant named three Chinese Army hackers, including one known as “Ugly Gorilla.”

The most sophisticated tools or specialized techniques are generally attributed to the work of governments – such as the US role in releasing a tool known as Stuxnet to cripple Iran’s nuclear program – because it can be expensive and time-consuming for experts to build them. But governments wouldn’t use their most sophisticated tools against unsophisticated targets, because of the risk that valuable tools would be discovered and rendered useless for future attacks.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the US government was preparing to respond. The White House did not comment about the reported connection to North Korea and there was no immediate response from the State Department.

In May, the Justice Department took the highly unusual step of announcing indictments against five Chinese military officials accused of vast cyber espionage against major American corporations. But months later, none of those defendants have been prosecuted in the United States, illustrating the challenge of using the American criminal justice system against cybercriminals operating in foreign countries.

BEIRUT – US President Barack Obama has ordered a review of how Washington can secure the release of American hostages, as intelligence agencies investigated the involvement of Western jihadists in the beheading of aid worker Peter Kassig.

The announcement of the review came just 24 hours after the release of a video by the Islamic State claiming the beheading of Kassig.

He was the third American to be killed by Islamic State, following the deaths of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

On Monday, the parents of the 26-year-old Kassig paid tribute to their son and said they would try to “forgive” the jihadists.

In the letter from Obama, dated last Tuesday, Christine Wormuth, the US undersecretary of defense for policy, says the review will focus “on examining family engagement, intelligence collection and diplomatic engagement policies”.

“The president recently directed a comprehensive review of the US government policy on overseas terrorist-related hostage cases,” Christine Wormuth said in the note posted on The Daily Beast news site.

The move, Wormuth said, comes “as a result of the increased frequency of hostage-taking of Americans overseas, and the recognition of the dynamic threat posed by specific terrorist groups”.

– ‘Our hearts are battered’ –

The killing of Kassig and the simultaneous beheadings of at least 18 Syrian military personnel in the video sparked global horror, with Obama calling it “an act of pure evil”.

Kassig’s parents on Monday called for healing and prayer as they mourned their loss.

“Please allow our small family the time and privacy to mourn, cry and — yes — forgive and begin to heal,” Peter’s father Ed said in an emotional address outside his church.

“Please pray for Abdul-Rahman, or Pete if that’s how you knew him, at sunset this evening. Pray also for all people in Syria, in Iraq and around the world that are held against their will.”

Peter’s mother Paula said while their world had been torn apart by the death of their son, they would focus on healing.

“Rather than letting the darkness overwhelm him he has chosen to believe in the good, in himself and in others… One person makes a difference,” she said.

“Our hearts are battered. But they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end.”

In Kassig’s home state of Indiana, Governor Mike Pence called the killing “an unspeakable act of barbarism”.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also used the word “barbarism” to describe IS on Monday, insisting the world would not be intimidated in the battle against it.

It was the latest in a series of atrocities by IS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The video showed the Syrian men kneeling on the ground each before a separate executioner, whose faces were uncovered.

Among the militants shown beheading the Syrian servicemen were some known foreign fighters, including at least one Frenchman and possibly a Briton, an Australian and a Dane.

French authorities identified one of the executioners as Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old from a small village in northern France who left for Syria in August last year.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said “circumstantial evidence confirms the involvement of a Frenchman in the decapitation of Syrian prisoners shown in an IS video released on Sunday.”

It added it was “possible” a second Frenchmen appeared in the video but said it was yet to confirm the individual’s identity.

– Lured by online videos –

Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to join IS in Iraq and Syria, and experts say they are often among the most violent and brutal of the jihadists.

A British-accented jihadist has been at the centre of previous IS beheading videos and appeared again in Sunday’s recording claiming Kassig’s killing.

The father of another British jihadist fighting with IS initially told the media he had also seen his son in the video, but later said he was mistaken.

Kassig, who took the name Abdul-Rahman after converting to Islam, was captured last year and became the fifth Western hostage beheaded by IS after the two US reporters and two British aid workers.

In the undated video released on Sunday, the jihadist stands above a severed head he claims is Kassig’s and challenges Obama to send more troops to the region to confront IS.

“Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” the militant says, referring to a northern Syrian town.

Washington is preparing to double its military personnel in Iraq to up to 3,100 as part of the international campaign it is leading against the jihadists.

Kassig, an Iraq war veteran, had risked his life to provide medical treatment and relief supplies to those suffering from Syria’s civil war.

Sunday’s video was substantially different from previous IS recordings of beheadings.

Kassig was not shown alive in the footage, and no direct threats were made against other Western hostages.

The video came as IS suffered battleground setbacks in Iraq supported by US-led air strikes, with government forces Saturday breaking the jihadists’ months-long siege of the country’s largest oil refinery.

Monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday it had documented the execution of 1,429 people in Syria by IS in the five months since it declared the establishment of a “caliphate” in areas under its control.