US, S. Korean militaries to conduct joint drills despite detente with Pyongyang

By ethan / February 20, 2018

The US and South Korea will go ahead with military drills off the Korean peninsula despite the “Peace Olympics” and the recent thaw in North-South relations, the South’s defense ministry said in a report to the National Assembly.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games in PyeongChang, Seoul was able to convince Washington to delay the start of their annual winter/springtime joint military exercises until after the games. The temporary halt to the annual Foal Eagle/Key Resolve US-South Korea joint military exercises allowed North and South Korea to develop a dialogue that the South hopes will ease the mounting tension in the region.

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FILE PHOTO © Kim Hong-Ji

On Tuesday, a day after Pyongyang warned against the resumption of the military drills, South Korea’s defense ministry announced that the allies will still hold the Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises. Holding the drills this year, the S. Korean military said it will enhance the so-called 4D Operational Concept amid allies which aims “to detect, disrupt, destroy and defend against North Korean missile threats,” the ministry said in a report to the National Assembly, Yonhap reports.

No concrete schedule for the drills has yet been announced for 2018, and the report did not mention the fate of the Foal Eagle drills. A Key Resolve computer-simulated command post exercise was held March 8-23 last year. The 2017 Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise involving some 17,500 US service members took place August 21-31.

The North has long urged the allies to stop their joint military training, and on Monday reiterated its objection to war games on its borders. “Resuming the war exercises is a wild act of ruthlessly trampling even a small sprout of peace that has been seen on the Korean peninsula,” North Korean KCNA said in an official commentary.

N. Korea particularly accused Donald Trump’s administration of seeking “war” in the region, blaming the US for using the “most powerful weapon in the world” to coerce Pyongyang. “The Trump group has to ponder over the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its reckless saber-rattling, and make a responsible choice,” KCNA said.

“We are ready for dialogue and war.”

The latest statement comes amid the war of words and muscle flexing in the region between Pyongyang and Washington. As the US again threatens to pursue a military option to neutralize North Korea, Russia and China have been calling for calm. Moscow and China have consistently urged for a diplomatic solution to the crisis based on the ‘double freeze’ initiative. The simple Sino-Russian proposal, firmly rejected by Washington, seeks a simultaneous suspension of both nuclear tests by Pyongyang and the large-scale military exercises by Washington and Seoul.

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German far-right AfD surpasses Social Democrats to become 2nd strongest party – poll

By ethan / February 20, 2018

The populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has garnered record high support, latest polling shows. For the first time, the anti-immigrant party has become more popular than the Social Democrats (SPD).

Nationwide public support for AfD, which is known for its controversially harsh anti-Islam and anti-immigrant stances, has once again risen to a record 16 percent, a survey conducted by the INSA polling center for the German Bild daily newspaper shows. Their popularity is now comparable to the record support they once had in September 2016.

At the same time, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is on a downward trend, as the public support for what once was one of the two major “people’s parties” in Germany seems to be waning. In what was called its worst post-war performance, the SPD received just 20.5 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections in September 2017. Now, according to INSA, public support for the party has fallen to yet another all-time low of only 15.5 percent.

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Leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz ©  Hannibal Hanschke

The AfD, however, improved its election result by more than three percentage points. Back in September, the far-right party gained 12.6 percent of the vote, allowing it to enter the German parliament for the first time in history.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are still the strongest political forces in Germany, and they enjoy a clear lead in terms of public backing. The CDU/CSU alliance is still twice as popular as its closest rivals and has the backing of 32 percent of the German population. It is still one percentage point lower than its election result, though.

Notably, the poll figures allege that if the parliamentary elections in Germany had been held last Sunday, the CDU/CSU alliance would be unable to form a majority coalition with the Social Democrats – something that the two political forces are still desperately trying to accomplish almost five months after the elections. According to the poll, the CDU/CSU union and the SPD would only get 47.5 percent of the vote.

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© Stefanie Loos / AFP

In the meantime, the AfD, which capitalized on the refugee crisis by repeatedly criticizing Merkel for her ‘open door’ policy, seems close to becoming the second most popular political party in Germany. The party, however, is still mired in controversy.

Most recently, Andre Poggenburg, state leader of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt, provoked a wave of criticism by calling Turks living in Germany “camel drivers” who should “go back to where they belong.” His remarks were then lambasted by German politicians, ordinary citizens and even his own fellow party members.

The German Greens have 13 percent of public support. Meanwhile, the Left Party and the Free Democrats (FDP) both sustained small losses of around one percentage point and received 11 and nine percent of public support, respectively.

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‘Massive fireball’ lightning strike damages ancient Scottish castle (VIDEO, PHOTOS)

By ethan / February 20, 2018

An ancient castle on the northwest coast of Scotland has been heavily damaged by a lightning strike that a witness compared to a “massive fireball.”

Castle Maol on the Isle of Skye was left significantly damaged by the dramatic display of nature’s power. Local hotel manager Robert Ireland captured dramatic footage of the powerful strike that blasted the ancient tower.

Duncan Barwise, who was safely indoors during the violent storm, described it as “a rare and unnerving combination of lightning, thunder, violent wind, and wet snow.” Local man Barwise captured before and after photos of the ruin.

“Suddenly, a sharp, almost deafening crack of thunder coincided with what seemed like a massive fireball,” he said, reliving the incident that felled the ancient fortification.

“Electricity filled the air. The familiar floodlights, which illuminated the walls of the once-fortified tower were extinguished.”

The following morning Barwise discovered that the castle’s iconic peak on the left wall was entirely gone. He said it had been “blown apart” by the lightning strike.

“The castle, first established by the Vikings in the 9th century, was dealt yet another blow by nature’s capricious hand – right before our eyes,” he added.

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Game of Viruses? HBO to dramatize ‘Stuxnet’ cyber attack on Iran

By ethan / February 20, 2018

The story behind the shadowy US-Israeli cyber attack against the Iranian nuclear program may soon be coming to TV screens. HBO is reportedly working on a miniseries based on ‘Zero Days,’ an award-winning documentary about Stuxnet.

The network behind ‘Game of Thrones’ has reportedly partnered with Carnival Films, the production company behind ‘Downton Abbey,’ to adapt a 2016 documentary by Alex Gibney. According to Deadline, Gibney himself will direct the project, which will reportedly also involve ‘The Americans’ screenwriter Stephen Schiff.

“I first came across it when I was doing We Steal Secrets,” the film about Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, Gibney told Deadline. “I didn’t understand at the time that it was something deeply fundamental about where we were heading, in terms of spying and cyber conflict. That didn’t happen until we started to make the film.”

Gibney credited Marc Shmuger, who produced ‘Zero Days,’ with opening his eyes to the pivotal importance of Stuxnet. The virus “set in motion a new kind of arms race,” he said.

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© Kirill Kallinikov

“It sent another kind of message, too, which is, the United States and Israel will use weapons and attack people first, and that sets a different kind of precedent for other countries, as well: Why shouldn’t we do the same?” Gibney told Deadline. “You can say that what we did with Stuxnet was an undeclared act of war — it was an attack on critical infrastructure in a time of peace. That sets a terrible legal precedent.”

First detected in 2010 by Russia’s Kaspersky Labs, Stuxnet is widely believed to be the work of the US and Israel. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that claim in a 2013 interview. However, neither government has officially acknowledged being behind the virus.

Computer code found in the 2017 leak from Shadow Brokers, which was allegedly stolen from the NSA, was also found to match that used in Stuxnet. Designed to target industrial control systems used in infrastructure facilities, Stuxnet modifies data on controller software that affects their automated processes.

In 2011, Iran accused the US and Israel of employing Stuxnet to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, specifically the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Stuxnet was reportedly introduced into the facility on a USB flash drive, bypassing the plant’s isolation from the internet.

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Lebanon ready to confront any ‘Israeli aggression at all costs’ – army

By ethan / February 20, 2018

The Lebanese army has reaffirmed its readiness to confront the “Israeli aggression” by any means at its disposal if the ongoing disputes and already tense relations between the neighbors escalate into an armed confrontation.

“I reaffirm again our categorical rejection of the Israeli enemy infringing on Lebanon’s sovereignty and its sacred right to exploit all its economic resources,” General Joseph Aoun said, as quoted by the Lebanese army. “The army will not spare any method available to confront any Israeli aggression, whatever that costs.”

Earlier this month, Lebanon signed its first contracts to explore two offshore zones for oil and gas. One of the parcels included exploration rights to the so-called Block 9, a triangle off the coast that is around 860 square kilometers – which Israel claims the rights to. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the move as “very provocative,” noting that Block 9 falls under Tel Aviv’s sovereignty. As Israel continues to assert its rights over the continental shelf, a consortium of international energy companies, including Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek, have already received approval from Beirut to explore the two blocks off the coast.

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An Israeli gas platform is seen in the back as a sailor in the Israeli navy stands aboard a patrol boat in the Mediterranean sea some 15 miles (24 km) west of the port city of Ashdod February 25, 2013. © Amir Cohen

Last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah expressed readiness to attack Israel’s oil and gas operations in the Levant basin off the Mediterranean if asked to do so by the Lebanese Defense Council.

Amid the escalating border dispute, US diplomats have been trying to mediate between the two adversaries. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Lebanon last Thursday. Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield is working with the Israeli side to avert any cross-border military action. However, Hezbollah has firmly rejected any US efforts in the settlement with Nasrallah, stressing that the “oil wealth is for all the Lebanese.”

Amid the ongoing dispute, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned about the possibility of a direct confrontation between Israel and Lebanon, noting that “sometimes a spark is enough to unleash this kind of a conflict.”

“The worst nightmare would be if there is a direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah… the level of destruction in Lebanon would be absolutely devastating, so there are major points of concern around this situation,” Guterres said Monday.

Israeli tensions with Lebanon have escalated to an unprecedented level since the 2006 war. Israel’s construction of a border wall and its attacks on Hezbollah and Iran have deteriorated the tensions even further. Israel repeatedly stated that it is prepared to take action to prevent Iranian advanced munitions from reaching Hezbollah via Syria. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of “devouring wide swaths of the Middle East” through its proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Tel Aviv believes that over the years, Hezbollah, with the help of Iran, has accumulated over 150,000 missiles capable of striking Israel. On February 10, Israel carried out the biggest air force operations in 30 years against Iranian targets in Syria. If the next war breaks out, the IDF would respond with “maximum force in the minimum amount of time,” Major General Nitzan Alon, head of IDF Operations, told Army Radio.

“The year 2018 has the potential for escalation, not necessarily because either side wants to initiate it, but because of a gradual deterioration. This has led us to raise the level of preparedness,” Alon said.

“If the next war indeed breaks out, it will be rough. But, first and foremost, it will be rough for the other side,” Alon warned. “I don’t think any Israeli citizen would want to switch places with a Lebanese citizen during the next war.”

The last major conflict between Israel and Lebanon broke out in 2006. The military confrontation, known as the Second Lebanon War in Israel and the July War in Lebanon, lasted 34 days and ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire. The conflict claimed the lives of 1,191 Lebanese people and left more than 4,400 injured, according to the local officials cited by a UN report. More than 900,000 Lebanese had to flee their homes because of the hostilities. Israel reportedly lost fewer than 200 people in the conflict, according to various sources, with most of them being IDF soldiers.

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Engine fire forces US F-16 to dump fuel tank over Japanese lake – reports

By ethan / February 20, 2018

An engine malfunction has forced a US F-16 pilot to drop his fighter jet’s external fuel tank over Lake Ogawara in Aomori Prefecture in order to safely return to Misawa Air Force Base in Japan, according to local media.

The engine of the F-16 fighter jet caught fire almost immediately after taking off from Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture at around 8:40 am on Tuesday morning, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera announced at a press conference after the Cabinet meeting, Reuters reports.

Prior to returning to the air base just three minutes after takeoff, the aircraft reportedly dumped one or two external auxiliary fuel tanks in Lake Ogawara, which is located near the base. According to a local fisherman who spoke with Kyodo news, there were four to five vessels in the vicinity of the 15-meter splash in Lake Ogawara, where one of the objects fell.

Japanese authorities contacted the US military to seek an explanation. The Misawa Defense Office said no injuries or damage have yet been confirmed in the wake of the incident, according to local media reports.

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Russia accused of ‘erasing Muslim heritage’ for restoring collapsing Crimean mosque

By ethan / February 20, 2018

Russia has been accused of trying to “erase Crimean Muslim culture” by restoring a local mosque. However, workers at the site say they are saving the historic building from crumbling after years of neglect.

Many sites in the Crimean peninsula remain in poor condition because there were insufficient funds allocated for their upkeep and restoration during the years that the region was part of Ukraine. The Big Khan Mosque of the iconic Bakhchisaray Palace was no exception. However, not everyone was happy when Russia started working in January to prevent the 500-year-old building from collapsing.

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Members of the Alternative for Germany party on a guided tour of Massandra Winery during their official visit to Crimea © Alexey Malgavko

On Sunday, Qatari network Al Jazeera published an article about the restoration process, entitled, “Is Russia attempting to erase Crimean Muslim culture?” The author of the piece, Moscow-based journalist Mansur Mirovalev, gave an overdramatic depiction of the construction site, comparing the mosque to a “bandaged patient.”

The article cited Ukrainian officials and the Tatar community’s self-proclaimed leaders, who chose to leave Crimea after it reunited with Russia in 2014. Those who were interviewed called the restoration a “part of Kremlin’s drive to reshape, ban and erase the cultural identity of Crimean Tatars.” A Crimean official during the Ukrainian rule, Edem Dudakov, claimed that “the palace will be lost; what they’re building is a sham.”

However, it seems more likely that the mosque would have been lost to history if the urgent restoration work did not start. The Big Khan Mosque was built in 1532 using wooden materials, which have not passed the test of time. RT Ruptly video agency has visited the site and examined the damaged tiles and dried out beams that were removed from the historic building – the wood was so fragile that it could be broken with bare hands.

READ MORE: ‘Exotic idea’: Russian senator blasts Ukrainian initiative to undermine election in Crimea

The wooden beams “lost their bearing capacity completely,” Aleksandr Yasko, a construction supervisor for the ATTA company, which is carrying out the restoration, said. “They’re doty; damaged by timber beetle. A mycological examination was carried out and it established that the beams are all infected with fungi. It lives there, in 100 percent of the structural beams.”

Yasko emphasized that the historic building is treated with extreme care and showed the tiles that were removed from the roof of the mosque. “Not even a single piece of tile has disappeared. It’s all stored on the territory of the open-air museum as well as the rotten beams.”

Removing the roof tiles was “a very complicated job… as every piece had to go through the hands of several workers. Besides, it had to be taken down from the height of 13 meters,” he said. The mosque has been losing tiles for centuries because the roof, which was redesigned after the 1736 fire, turned out to be too steep. Yasko said that the historic shape of the Big Khan Mosque will remain unchanged after the restoration, but the newly-placed tiles will be equipped with a special fixing system that will prevent them from sliding.

The Big Khan Mosque wasn’t just in poor condition, it also posed a real danger to the people who visited the site. “According to my estimations, the roof would’ve simply collapsed in the next five years and people would’ve been killed,” the foreman said.

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Nosferbatu: Researchers reveal vampire bat’s genetic secrets

By ethan / February 20, 2018

Scientists have cracked the mystery of how vampire bats can survive solely upon the blood of their victims. The nocturnal Latin American mammals are fascinating creatures, the study leader says.

The creepy nocturnal creatures are unique among mammals because they are the only ones that just drink blood. For the first time, scientists studying the vampire bat have mapped their complete genome, revealing that the winged mammal has a number of genetic traits that allow them to thrive on their unusual food source.

And they need these genetic advantages because mammals blood is not an ideal food source. For one, blood is low in nutrients and it can harbour blood-borne diseases. However, this is not a barrier for the vampire bat, as Lisandra Zepeda, the study’s lead author from the University of Copenhagen, explains.

“We decided to study this species because it has an ‘extreme’ diet, in the sense that it requires many adaptations in the organism to live on that,” Zepeda said. “Blood is a challenging dietary source since it provides very low levels of vitamins and carbs, and a lot of proteins, salts and waste products.”

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An image of a vampire bat.

The team compared the genome of the common vampire bat to it’s non-blood sucking relatives, and examined microbial DNA from its droppings to conclude that “there is a close evolutionary relationship between the gut microbiome and the genome of the vampire bat for adaptation to sanguivory (feeding exclusively on blood).”

They were also able to identify elements in the genome that allow the bats to defend against potentially lethal pathogens that lurk in their victim’s blood.

The common vampire bat is a nocturnal, cave-dwelling mammal that lives in Mexico, as well as Central and South America. They swoop down under cover of darkness to feed on the blood of livestock, landing beside them undetected. The bats then sink their razor-sharp teeth into their victims and use their elongated tongues to suck up the flowing blood.

While this sounds rather horrifying, Zepeda thinks the bats get a bad rap.

“Yeah, they’re messed-up creatures, or amazing creatures, whatever you want to call them,” she said. “My personal feelings about them is that it’s too bad people demonize them like that. We should be amazed by them, not scared. They’re actually quite cute: abstract beauty. Sure, you don’t want them to bite your cows if you’re a farmer, but they were there way before you.”

The research was published on Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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Hands up: Ohio sheriff offers gun training to teachers

By ethan / February 20, 2018

A sheriff in Ohio is offering free concealed and carry classes to teachers in the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida. Sheriff Richard Jones hopes that more gun-toting teachers will prevent future school shootings.

Jones took to Twitter on Sunday to announce he would be offering the free gun lessons. He urged Butler County School Employees to sign up for class with their full name, school affiliate and contact information.

In a video posted on the department’s Facebook page, Jones said that “the current way we do things in the school system needs to be changed”.

In a letter addressed to Ohio Governor John Kasich (R), which was shown in the video, Jones wrote that “more teachers and school employees need to be allowed to be armed on school premises.

There need to be “armed guards in the schools, we need to look at metal detectors. This is not going to stop or go away, but we need to be prepared and not have our heads in the sand,” Jones wrote.

According to the Butler County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, the class will be limited to 50 people. Any employee of a school located in Butler County is eligible to apply, as long as they can provide proof of employment in a school and a valid ID.

In a Tweet posted on Monday, Jones claimed that over 200 people have already applied for the gun training lessons.  

The initiative comes in the wake of the fatal shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The attacker, identified as former student Nikolas Cruz, opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, killing 17 people and injuring many more.

However, not everyone was enthusiastic about Jones’s proposal.

Don’t ask teachers to shoulder more responsibility and carry weapons. This does not make schools safe, it makes them less welcoming and caring for students,” commenter Ashley Vaughn wrote on Facebook.

Jones’s push for more gun-wielding teachers has been echoed by other law enforcement officers in the US. On Friday, Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd announced the launch of the Sheriff’s Sentinel Program, which would allow teachers to carry firearms in the classroom.

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150km in 25 minutes: India’s hyperloop test-track to open in 2021

By ethan / February 19, 2018

India has pulled ahead in the race to build a hyperloop after pledging to construct a route to connect Mumbai with the city of Pune. When completed, passengers will be able to travel the 150-kilometer journey in 25 minutes.

The proposed route will include a detour via the airport in Mumbai. Travelling the route by car or by train currently takes over three hours.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson announced the partnership between Virgin Hyperloop One and the state of Maharashtra.

“Virgin Hyperloop One can help India become a global transportation pioneer and forge a new world-changing industry,” Branson said in a statement.

Initial estimates say that the system will carry 150 million passengers each year. They also hope that the hyperloop will slash freight times between Mumbai’s port and Pune.

The hyperloop system uses electromagnetic propulsion and magnetic levitation (mag-lev) technology to transport futuristic pods at incredible speeds.

READ MORE: Hyperloop 2.0? Chinese company proposes 4,000kph ‘flying train’

Virgin says the route could result in $ 55 billion in socio-economic benefits, including a reduction in accidents and savings in time and operational costs.

The 100-percent electric system will also ease traffic congestion and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86,000 tons over 30 years of operation.

If the project passes a six-month feasibility study it will begin in earnest with the construction of an operational demonstration track, which is expected to be built within three years.

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