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WASHINGTON: Saudi Arabia‘s young crown prince has an ambitious list of to-dos: modernise his conservative kingdom, weaken Iran’s hand across the Mideast and, this week, rehabilitate his country’s image in the eyes of Americans.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of King Salman and heir to the throne, is opening a marathon tour of the United States with a stop in Washington, where he’ll meet President Donald Trump on Tuesday.
He’ll hold separate meetings with a long roster of influential US officials, including the secretaries of defense, treasury and commerce, the CIA chief and congressional leaders from both parties.
Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House envoy Jared Greenblatt, who are drafting Trump’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan, will also join the crown prince for dinner today, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said.
The visit comes as the United States and much of the West are still trying to figure out Prince Mohammed, better known by his initials MBS, whose sweeping program of social changes at home and increased Saudi assertiveness abroad has upended decades of traditional rule in Saudi Arabia.
The 32-year-old crown prince also has big economic plans, and over three weeks in the US he will meet businessmen in New York, tech mavens from Google and Apple Inc. in San Francisco, and entertainment bigwigs in Los Angeles. Other stops include Boston and Houston.
“This is not the real Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said when asked by CBS News about the repressive version of Islam many outsiders associate with the kingdom. He said he was restoring the more tolerant, egalitarian society that existed before Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservatives were empowered in 1979. “We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.”
It’s a message that has earned Prince Mohammed admirers in the United States, as he allowed women to drive and opened movie theaters shuttered since the 1980s. The crown prince is turning “Saudi Arabia into a normal country in which normal people lead normal lives,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters yesterday.
Yet Democrats and Republicans have approached some of the crown prince’s other bold steps with trepidation, particularly in the broader Middle East. One bill in Congress proposes scaling back US military assistance to a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Prince Mohammed, in particular, has been closely identified with the three-year-old war in the Arab world’s poorest country, which started while he was defense minister. The Saudis and their allies are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels, but international organizations have harshly criticized the coalition’s airstrikes and blockading of Yemeni ports for contributing to thousands of civilian deaths and a humanitarian catastrophe.
It’s not the only regional mess the Saudis are in. In November, US officials voiced unease when Lebanon’s prime minister unexpectedly resigned while in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was accused of attempting to bring down Lebanon’s government, which is strongly influenced by Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Prime Minister Saad Hariri later reversed his resignation.
The Saudis are working aggressively to change perceptions. They’ve cast themselves as essential partners against Islamist extremist groups and, especially since Trump’s maiden overseas voyage last year, touted their lavish purchases of high-tech goods from job-creating American companies.
In Yemen, the kingdom says it is improving military targeting, opening up ports and pledging $1.5 billion in new aid.
“The concerns expressed there are reflective of deep concerns by the American public at large,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Saudis are very sensitive to this. They’re certainly communicating with elite circles to discuss the measures they’re taking to try to get humanitarian assistance in to Yemen.”
In Prince Mohammed, Trump will find a sympathetic ear for his calls to crack down on Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, and strengthen a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran that former President Barack Obama and world powers brokered. Trump has threatened to pull out of the agreement unless there are changes by May. Last week, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an advocate of staying in the accord, choosing Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director and nuclear deal critic, as a replacement.
The crown prince could dangle a huge carrot in front of Trump for his support. Stock exchanges in New York and elsewhere are vying for the international listing of Aramco, the Saudi oil behemoth expected to go public soon. Saudi concerns with New York include a post-9/11 law that could jeopardize assets in the United States if victims’ families claim Saudi Arabia helped the al-Qaida attackers and sue for compensation. Although the U.S. has welcomed Prince Mohammed’s determination to purge pervasive corruption in Saudi Arabia, including by royals, the Trump administration hasn’t endorsed his tactics.
Last year, more than 150 high-level princes, ministers, military officials and businessmen were abruptly rounded up and detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. They eventually paid settlements that Saudi Arabia says exceeded $106 billion. Al-Jubeir, the foreign minister, said the tough tactics were needed after past anti-corruption campaigns failed. “It didn’t work,” he said. “So now you do something dramatic.”
Decades-old animosity between Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran has deepened in recent years as the two sides wage proxy wars in the Middle East and beyond, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Iran’s murky and fluid relationship with al Qaeda has contributed to tensions with Riyadh, which previously accused Tehran of backing al Qaeda and sheltering its members.
Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview that Iran was protecting al Qaeda operatives, including some of bin Laden’s relatives.
“This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of al Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran,” he said. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi called crown prince’s comments a “big lie”.
Hamza bin Laden was one of several bin Ladens who ended up in Iran after the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001. Documents recovered from his father’s compound in Pakistan after he was killed in a U.S. raid in 2011 said Hamza was, at least for a period, held under house arrest Iran. His current whereabouts are not known.
Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda has been led by his former deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nonetheless Hamza has issued a number of messages on behalf of the network in recent years, threatening further violence against the West.
The group has been sidelined significantly by its rival and foe, the militant organisation Islamic State.
Iran’s Qasemi said that after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001, some al Qaeda fighters had crossed into Iran illegally, but that they had been arrested and extradited to their countries of origin. These included bin Laden family members with Saudi citizenship.
“Bin Laden’s daughter was extradited to the Saudi embassy in Tehran,” Qasemi was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.
“Upon consultation with Saudi Arabia, other members of Bin Laden family were deported through the same border they had illegally entered Iran,” he added.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran and strict Sunni militant group al Qaeda are natural enemies on either side of the Muslim world’s great sectarian divide. Yet intelligence veterans say that Iran, in pursuing its own ends, has in the past taken advantage of al Qaeda fighters’ need to shelter or pass through its territory. In Sunday’s interview Prince Mohammed also accused Iran of having recruited some of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 attacks on New York, with the aim of creating a “schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.”
WASHINGTON: Several people were shot at a Maryland high school on Tuesday, local news media reported, after school officials confirmed the campus was on lockdown and the incident had been “contained.”
Multiple people were shot and their condition was not yet clear, ABC News reported, citing the St. Mary’s County sheriff.
The sheriff’s office confirmed an incident at the school and urged parents in a Twitter post not to approach the campus. Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were heading to the school, the agency said.
It occurred amid a re-energized national debate over school shootings in the United States following an attack on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 students and faculty.
The shooting came four days before the March For Our Lives – partly organized by student survivors of the Parkland rampage – takes place in Washington to urge lawmakers to pass tighter gun control laws.
A student who said his name was Jonathan Freese said in a telephone interview on CNN that he had been on lockdown with classmates for nearly an hour, but he did not hear gunshots himself. The interview ended as police came to his classroom door.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he was monitoring events at the school. “Our prayers are with students, school personnel, and first responders,” he said in a statement.
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump will soon make it easier to export some types of lethal US-made drones to potentially dozens more allies and partners, according to people familiar with the plan.
Trump is expected to ease rules for such foreign sales under a long-delayed new policy on unmanned military aircraft due to be rolled out as early as this month, the first phase of a broader overhaul of arms export regulations.
US drone manufacturers, facing growing competition overseas especially from Chinese and Israeli rivals who often sell under lighter restrictions, have lobbied hard for the rule changes.
The White House is expected to tout the move as part of Trump’s “Buy American” initiative to create jobs and reduce the US trade deficit.
Human rights and arms control advocates, however, warn it risks fueling violence and instability in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia. An announcement of the new policy has been held up for months amid deliberations on how far to go in unleashing drones exports. That delay prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to write to Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster to press him to expedite the policy shift to avoid losing out on sales to certain countries, an industry source and two U.S officials said.
A key thrust of the policy will be to lower barriers to sales of smaller hunter-killer drones that carry fewer missiles and travel shorter distances than larger models such as the iconic Predator drone, the sources said. Export regulations will also be eased for surveillance drones of all sizes, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even though Trump will stop short of completely opening up sales of top-of-the-line lethal drones, it will mark a major step toward overcoming a long-standing US taboo against selling armed drones to countries other than a handful of Washington’s most trusted allies. Military drones have changed the face of modern warfare, with US models in greatest demand.
Trump’s aides had initially focused mostly on devising ways to boost sales of “eye in the sky” drones used for tracking and targeting. But after a more than year-long review, they have crafted a plan that will reinterpret some rules to allow for more armed drone sales overseas.
A list of potential buyers being given fast-track treatment is expected to expand to include more NATO members, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners as well as treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea, the people familiar with the plan said.
Also likely to be in the favored group would be key partners such as India, Singapore and Australia as well as many of the 35 signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international agreement that sets rules for export of missiles and related weaponry. The only sales of armed US drones in recent years have been to Britain and Italy.
“We’re getting outplayed all over the world,” a US official told Reuters. “Why can our competitors sell to our own allies the equipment they are clamoring to buy from us? This policy is meant to turn that around.”
A Trump administration official, responding to a request for comment on the story, said the US government is seeking to “minimize the self-inflicted bureaucratic and administrative hurdles to US competitiveness in the global aerospace markets.”
The official insisted, however, that any sales of armed drones would be in accordance with US law and require that buyers adhere to international standards.
There was no immediate comment from the White House or Pentagon on the Mattis message to McMaster.
CHEAPER BUT STILL DEADLY
Two potential beneficiaries of the rule changes, Textron and Kratos Defense & Security Solutions Inc, currently market smaller armed drones internationally, though US regulations have apparently restrained them from securing sales so far.
Industry sources say other manufacturers are considering expanding their product lines.
The overall loosening of drone export rules would also help producers such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin, two industry sources said.
Company officials declined to comment ahead of the policy unveiling.
US Marine Staff Sgt. James Smith inspects an RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle during preflight checks at the Pohakuloa Training Area, on the island of Hawaii, October 2017. (File photo: Reuters)
The smaller drones that meet the new export guidelines are expected to be much cheaper than high-end models such as the Predator and Reaper, both made by General Atomics, which cost up to $17 million apiece according to reports.
While they are less destructive than the larger drones, their firepower can destroy vehicles, small structures and armed positions.
US officials contend that a more export-friendly approach will not only help meet Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to bolster America’s “defense industrial base” but also get foreign partners to take on more of their own defense costs.
An increase in drones sales “could put these weapons in the hands of governments that act irresponsibly with their neighbors and against their own populations,” warned Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan Washington-based organization focused on global weapons proliferation threats.
Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, introduced revised rules in 2015 aimed at increasing military drone exports. But US manufacturers complained they were still too restrictive. US drone makers are vying for a larger share of the global military drone market, which the Teal Group, a market research firm, has forecast will rise from $2.8 billion in sales in 2016 to $9.4 billion in 2025.
The new policy is expected to be unveiled in coming weeks, people close to the matter said, though they also cautioned that the exact timing remains in flux.
Among the changes will be a more lenient application by the US government of an arms export principle known as “presumption of denial.” This has impeded many drone deals by automatically denying approval unless a compelling security reason is given together with strict buyer agreements to use the weapons in accordance with international law.
One US official said the new policy would “change our calculus” by easing those restrictions on whether to allow any given sale.
The MTCR – a 1987 missile-control pact signed by the United States and 34 other countries – will still require strict export controls on Predator-type drones, which it classifies as Category 1, those with a payload of over 1,100 pounds (500 kg).
However, the Trump administration is seeking to renegotiate the MTCR accord to eventually make it easier to export the larger armed drones.
SAQBA: Talal Sadek clutched his elderly mother’s hand, helping her navigate the piles of rubble that snaked up to their front door in the battered town of Saqba, outside Syria‘s capital.
They were among hundreds of residents who returned on Monday to the town’s rubble-strewn streets, days after Syrian government troops rolled through the area as part of a month-old assault on rebels in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.
“My mother and I are returning to our hometown. Thank God it ended early,” Sadek told AFP, grinning through his exhaustion.
As soldiers advanced on the town, they opened an escape route for civilians who were stuck there and Sadek, 50, rushed out with his family, convinced it would long be too dangerous to return. But two days later, he was back.
“We left the town on Friday, then they told us that the people of Saqba could come back to their homes. We thought we would never come back,” he said.
Gutted buildings lined Saqba’s dusty streets, where hundreds of men, women and children could be seen returning to their homes on foot or on bicycles.
Some carried suitcases stuffed with household items. One man pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair and another was seen trying to start a car stuffed with suitcases and blankets. They trudged past tanks and soldiers taking a break from nearby fronts.
On one side street, Hilal Abdulbaset squatted on the ground, cooking rice over a woodstove.
“The bombing was intense. It was hard but thank God, it turned out all right,” said the Saqba resident in his fifties. He too fled as the Syrian army advanced, but as soon as his family heard that clashes in the town had subsided, they hurried back.
“They told us it was all clear, so we packed our things and came back quickly. Here we are now, amongst our friends and neighbours,” Abdulbaset told AFP.
Syria’s army has captured more than 80 percent of Ghouta, splitting the rest of the rebel-held enclave into three isolated pockets, each controlled by a separate group.
Saqba lies in a southern pocket held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and targeted most heavily in recent days by regime forces.
Tens of thousands of people have streamed out of the area. Some rebels even surrendered, a military source told AFP.
“Part of the armed factions handed themselves in, and another part fled to neighbouring areas,” the source said.
“It became possible for the civilians that were trapped in basements to go back to their normal lives — it’s a new life.”
For now, Saqba remains virtually uninhabitable. There is no electricity or water and mountains of rubble still block the roads.
Nonetheless, 35-year-old Moaz held out hope he would soon return to work as a carpenter.
Pointing to the shuttered workshops around him, he said: “We want to build the town so these shops can open again. We will restore it through the power of its people.”
His wife Basma, 28, stood nearby and watched over their young children.
Many Saqba residents expressed relief they could simply be outside again.
Bassem Hammudeh, 67, stayed alone in Saqba after his wife and children fled several years ago to Damascus.
“The days that passed were hard — darker than soot,” he told AFP, donning a wool cap despite the day’s warmth.
Hammudeh recalled spending days in Ghouta searching for medicine, after a crippling five-year siege made food, fuel, and health supplies almost impossible to access or afford.
“If you die, you rest. But if you get sick without medicine, what do you do? You die every single minute,” he said.
His green eyes shone as he talked about what he could do now that he was no longer under siege: “Now we can visit our children, travel, smell fresh air.”
Samya, 54, emerged from a nearby cellar that she and several families shared for weeks as shells rained down.
“We never left our town — we stayed in the shelter for more than a month, during which we didn’t see sunlight,” she said.
“Now, we can finally see the sun.”
MOSCOW: A Russian scientist told state media Tuesday he worked on an official programme to produce the nerve agent Britain says was used against ex-spy Sergei Skripal, contradicting Moscow’s claims it never developed Novichok.
Leonid Rink, who told RIA Novosti he worked on a state-backed programme up to the early 1990s, added that the former double agent and his daughter would be dead had Moscow been involved in his poisoning.
“They are still alive. That means that either it was not the Novichok system at all, or it was badly concocted, carelessly applied,” he said in the interview.
“Or straight after the application, the English used an antidote, in which case they would have had to have known exactly what the poison was,” he said.
Rink said he worked at a state laboratory in the closed town of Shikhan for 27 years, where the development of Novichok formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation.
“A large group of specialists in Shikhan and Moscow worked on ‘Novichok’,” he said.
Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov last week said Moscow never had any programmes to develop the chemical weapon.
“I want to state with all possible certainty that the Soviet Union or Russia had no programmes to develop a toxic agent called Novichok,” he said.
The foreign ministry told AFP on Tuesday this remained its position.
London and its allies say Russia was behind the attempted assassination in the English city of Salisbury, but Moscow has angrily denied any involvement.
Russian politicians have suggested the poisoning was part of a Western plot to whip up anti-Russian sentiment ahead of the presidential election at the weekend or the World Cup.
OSLO: Norwegian Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug, who was almost certain to lose a no-confidence due later on Tuesday, has resigned in a bid to prevent a collapse of the centre-right minority government.
Listhaug provoked anger and dismay earlier this month when she accused the opposition Labour Party of putting “terrorists’ rights” before national security, a particularly sensitive topic for Labour which was hit in 2011 by a mass shooting by far right militant Anders Behring Breivik.
Listhaug made her comments after Labour and the Christian Democrats helped defeat a bill allowing the state the right, without judicial review, to strip individuals of Norwegian citizenship if they were suspected of terrorism or of joining foreign militant groups.
Listhaug’s comments triggered a political storm, and she apologised in parliament last week. Opposition parties, however, said her gesture was not sincere enough, and that she should resign.
Norway’s opposition Christian Democrats said on Monday it would join five centre-left parties in backing a no-confidence motion, securing a majority in favour of ousting Listhaug.
The vote in parliament had been scheduled to take place later on Tuesday. Prime Minister Erna Solberg faced the choice of letting Listhaug go, weakening the cabinet and risking a defection by Progress, or to get the whole government to resign.
BEIRUT: Islamic State fighters holding a small district in Damascus have gained some ground after driving out Syrian army units that moved into a neighbouring area that rebels abandoned last week, a war monitor said.
In fighting that lasted 24 hours, the ultra-hardline militant group killed 36 Syrian soldiers, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Syrian army could not immediately be reached for comment.
The district of al-Qadam lies in the Syrian capital’s southern suburbs and has not been part of the month-long offensive waged by the army against rebels in eastern Ghouta.
It is located next to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, a scene of fierce fighting early in the seven-year conflict.
Last week, rebels that had held part of Qadam for years quit the district for opposition areas in northern Syria under an evacuation deal with the government, allowing the army to move in.
However, the Islamic State group that had held a separate part of Qadam, and had sporadically fought the rebels there, launched an assault to take the area they had vacated.
Islamic State has lost almost all its territory in Syria after two rival offensives last year by the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States.
It now controls only the small pocket in Qadam, a patch of territory in southwest Syria near the borders with Jordan and Israel, and two small areas of desert on each side of the Euphrates near the border with Iraq.
SEOUL/WASHINGTON: The United States and South Korea will resume joint military drills next month, Seoul and Washington said on Tuesday, exercises that will go ahead despite US President Donald Trump‘s planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Seoul and Washington said in January they would delay the annual exercises until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics held in South Korea last month, helping to create conditions for a resumption of talks between South and North Korea.
The reclusive North routinely denounces the drills as preparation for war.
The Foal Eagle field exercise is scheduled to begin on April 1 and go on for a month, while the computer-simulated Key Resolve will be held for two weeks starting in mid-April, a South Korean military official told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity across Asia, the United States and Europe since the North sent delegations to the Winter Olympics, moves that culminated in North Korea’s planned summits with the South and with the United States.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries usually stage the two drills in March for about two months but the period of this year’s field exercise was cut by half, mainly due to the Olympics, said the South Korean official, who asked not to be identified.
The exercises will be of a “scale similar to that of the previous years” and are meant “to improve our readiness against various North Korean threats”, the official said.
North Korea is pursuing nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Such plans, and the exchange of insults between Kim and Trump, had led to increased fears of confrontation on the Korean peninsula in recent months before the diplomatic contacts. China, North Korea’s main ally, says it is happy to see an easing of tensions.
The Pentagon said the North Korean military had been notified about the schedule for the drills by the United Nations Command.
“Our combined exercises are defence-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as a provocation,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan said in a statement.
The South Korean official said consultations were underway over whether U.S. strategic assets such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or bombers would be deployed for the drills.
Logan said the two joint drills would involve about 23,700 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean forces.
He said they were not in response to any specific North Korean actions or the current situation on the Korean peninsula.
The Key Resolve simulated exercises would likely overlap with a summit between the two Koreas, planned for late April, the South Korean official said.
After the postponement of the drills was announced in January, Pyongyang agreed to hold the first official talks with Seoul in more than two years and then sent athletes and officials to the Winter Olympics.
Those talks led to a visit this month by a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang for a meeting with the North Korean leader. Delegation leader Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, said Kim committed to denuclearisation and expressed eagerness to meet Trump as soon as possible, an offer the U.S. president quickly accepted.
Chung said Kim was expected to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April before meeting Trump by the end of May.
The two Koreas held working-level talks on Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom over Seoul’s plan to send an artistic troupe for a concert in Pyongyang.
Despite the North’s denunciation of past drills, Chung said Kim understood that the allies must continue their “routine” joint military exercises.
Pyongyang has not confirmed the exchange and threatened earlier this month to take “counteraction” if the United States and South Korea went ahead with the exercises.
The joint drills ran from March 1-April 30 in 2017 and included the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no U.S. aircraft carriers would take part this year, which he said was according to plan and not related to the political situation.
COLOMBO: An envoy says Maldives will not extend the state of emergency that is due to expire on Wednesday amid criticism of the government over the recent political turmoil.
Mohamed Hussain Shareef, ambassador to neighboring Sri Lanka, said the government ‘has no intention of extending’ the emergency when its 30-day period expires, ‘barring very unusual circumstances such as widespread violence.’
Maldives declared an emergency due to turmoil following a Supreme Court ruling ordering the release of several of the president’s jailed political opponents. Under the emergency law, President Yameen Abdul Gayoom had two Supreme Court judges arrested for alleged corruption and the remaining three judges annulled the order to release Yameen’s opponents.
The emergency regulations gave Maldives’ security forces sweeping powers, including to make arrests and search and seize property.