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Mystery Yemen drone strike renews questions over US campaign

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Mystery Yemen drone strike renews questions over US campaign

Onlookers gathered around a small, four-door car coated in dried mud, peering through its shattered windows and torn-away roof at three dead men inside.

Tribal leaders identified the three — killed in late January near Yemen’s central city of Marib — as suspected members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, long considered one of the extremist group’s most dangerous branches.

They appear to have been killed in a rare drone strike by the U.S., using a weapon that’s been deployed sparingly in the past, typically against high-value targets.

The strike renews questions over the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen, now two decades old and just as secretive as ever despite promises from the Biden administration to put more rules in place to govern them. That secrecy, coupled with a years-long war ripping at Yemen, makes it even more difficult to determine and assess the reasons behind suspected American strikes.

The suspected al-Qaida members appear to have been killed by a Hellfire R9X, otherwise known as the “flying Ginsu” or “knife bomb,” based on images of the wreckage analyzed by The Associated Press and weapons experts. The R9X, known only to be used by U.S. forces, has been used in other attacks attributed to America, including the Kabul airstrike last year that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

The men killed in the Jan. 30 strike were not prominent members of the extremist group. One was identified as a bomb-maker, with little else known about him.

“The R9X is for high-value target killing and we don’t have any ’Who is this guy, why does he merit this now?’” said David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank New America, which for years has tracked U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. “If it is a U.S. strike, it raises substantial questions about what is the state of the U.S. drone war in Yemen.”

The White House declined to answer questions about the apparent strike,

U.S. Air Forces Central, which oversees the Middle East, said it didn’t have any information that its forces carried out any strike in Marib. The CIA, which is believed to have conducted R9X strikes including the one that killed al-Zawahri, declined to comment.

The U.S. government has released few public details about the the R9X Hellfire, which comes from a class of anti-tank missile used across the U.S. military for two decades. Analysts say that instead of a standard explosive warhead, the R9X has six rotating blades that pop just before the missile hits a target. In theory, this helps direct the weapon at a specific person and prevents wider casualties.

The scenes after attacks differ greatly, depending on the type of drone used.

Drones carrying explosives would leave smoldering rubble or even a crater, depending on the size of the munition. In suspected R9X attacks, such as the 2017 strike that killed a deputy al-Qaida leader in Syria, the roofs of targeted cars are torn through with clean lines across a multitude of cuts, while the rest of the vehicle remains intact.

This was also the case in the Jan. 30 strike, carried out in the Wadi Ubaydah area of Marib, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The capital has been held for years by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group which has been fighting against a Saudi-led military coalition for eight years.

New America, as well as the London-based investigative organization Airwars, cited experts and local reporting in saying that they suspected an R9X strike.

“It has all the features of other CIA strikes we’ve seen in the past, but until there’s transparency, we can’t know for sure,” Airwars director Emily Tripp said.

Two local tribal leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity given the ongoing war and the presence of extremists in Marib, told the AP that those killed were AQAP members. Masked al-Qaida fighters surrounded the area after the strike, they said.

The leaders identified one of the dead as Hassan al-Hadrami. The Houthis, through the state-run SABA news agency they control, had identified al-Hadrami in 2021 as one of several “specialized” explosives experts in the al-Qaida branch. The extremists have been planting roadside explosives.

However, al-Hadrami was otherwise unknown to veteran Yemen watchers.

United Nations experts believe AQAP numbers a few thousand members supplemented by foreign fighters. Marib remains a stronghold for al-Qaida even though Saudi-backed allies of Yemen’s internationally recognized government in exile are nominally in control of the city.

AQAP claimed the 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola that saw an aviation student from Saudi Arabia kill three people and wound two. However, it otherwise has been unsuccessful in striking the U.S. while seeing its militants targeted by drone strikes over the last two decades.

The first drone strike of the post-9/11 world was carried out in Marib in 2002 under then-President George W. Bush, after a missile attack killed six people, including a U.S.
citizen. Since then, every American president — Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden — has authorized drone strikes in the Arab world’s poorest country.

Biden in 2022 issued new guidelines curtailing the use of armed drones outside of war zones, requiring presidential approval before a suspected terrorist is added to the U.S.

government’s target list for potential lethal action. However, those documents remain classified — making judging the reasons behind suspected strikes that much more difficult.
“These cases are happening in very remote areas with a lack of information,” Tripp said. “It would be really good to know what the policy is and the rules are behind those engagements.”

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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