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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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Israel insists it is doing all it can to protect civilians in Gaza and denies genocide charges

Israel insists it is doing all it can to protect civilians in Gaza and denies genocide charges

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Israel insists it is doing all it can to protect civilians in Gaza and denies genocide charges

Israel strongly denied charges of genocide on Friday, telling the United Nations’ top court it was doing everything it could to protect the civilian population during its military operation in Gaza.

The International Court of Justice wrapped up a third round of hearings on emergency measures requested by South Africa, which says Israel’s military incursion in the southern city of Rafah threatens the “very survival of Palestinians in Gaza” and has asked the court to order a cease-fire.

Tamar Kaplan-Tourgeman, one of Israel’s legal team, defended the country’s conduct, saying it had allowed in fuel and medication to the beleaguered enclave.

“Israel takes extraordinary measures in order to minimize the harm to civilians in Gaza,” she told The Hague-based court.

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A protester shouting “Liars” briefly interrupted Kaplan-Tourgeman’s final remarks. The hearing was paused for less than a minute while security guards escorted a woman from the public gallery.

South Africa told the court on Thursday that the situation in the beleaguered enclave has reached “a new and horrific stage” and urged judges to order a half to Israeli military operations. The court was holding a third round of hearings on emergency measures requested by South Africa since it first filed its genocide case at the end of last year.

According to the latest request, South Africa says Israel’s military incursion in Rafah threatens the “very survival of Palestinians in Gaza.” In January, judges ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive. Judges will now deliberate on the request and are expected to issue a decision in the next weeks.

ICJ judges have broad powers to order a cease-fire and other measures, though the court doesn’t have its own enforcement apparatus. A 2022 order by the court demanding that Russia halt its full-scale invasion of Ukraine has so far gone unheeded.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced since fighting began.

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The war began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which Palestinian militants killed around 1,200 people and took about 250 hostages. More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, Gaza’s Health Ministry says, without distinguishing between civilians and combatants in its count.

South Africa initiated proceedings in December 2023 and sees the legal campaign as rooted in issues central to its identity. Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands.” Apartheid ended in 1994. 

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Ukraine braces for ‘heavy battles’ as Putin says Russia carving out Kharkiv buffer zone

Ukraine braces for ‘heavy battles’ as Putin says Russia carving out Kharkiv buffer zone

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Ukraine braces for 'heavy battles' as Putin says Russia carving out Kharkiv buffer zone

Ukraine’s top commander warned on Friday of “heavy battles” looming on the war’s new front in the northeastern Kharkiv region as Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was carving out a “buffer zone” in the area.

Russian forces attacked the Kharkiv region’s north last Friday, making inroads of up to 10 kilometres (6 miles) and unbalancing Kyiv’s outnumbered troops who are trying to hold the line over a sprawling front nearly 27 months since the full-scale invasion.

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi said the attack had expanded the area of hostilities by around 70km and that Russia had launched its incursion ahead of schedule when “it noticed the deployment of our forces”.

“We understand there will be heavy battles and that the enemy is preparing for that,” the head of the Ukrainian armed forces wrote in a statement on the Telegram app.

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Speaking during a state visit to China, Putin said Moscow’s forces were creating a “buffer zone”to protect Russian border regions, but that capturing the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, was not part of the current plan.

The Russian leader told a news conference the assault was a response to Kyiv’s shelling of Russian border regions such as Belgorod.

“Civilians are dying there. It’s obvious. They are shooting directly at the city centre, at residential areas. And I said publicly that if this continues, we will be forced to create a security zone, a buffer zone. That is what we are doing,” Putin said.

Russian forces were able to advance 10 kilometres in one place, but Ukrainian forces have “stabilised” the front, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Ukrainian media outlets in comments published on Friday.

HEAVIEST ASSAULTS IN EAST

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Moscow’s forces are mounting their heaviest assaults in the eastern Donetsk region, according to data compiled by the Ukrainian General Staff, which said the eastern Pokrovsk front had faced the most regular assaults in recent days.

In his comments, Syrskyi said Ukrainian forces were preparing their defensive lines for a possible new Russian assault on the Sumy region, which would mark another front more than a hundred kilometres to the north of Kharkiv.

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Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

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Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

France declared a state of emergency on the Pacific island of New Caledonia on Wednesday after three young indigenous Kanak and a police official were killed in riots over electoral reform.

The state of emergency, which entered into force at 5 am local time (1800 GMT), gives authorities additional powers to ban gatherings and forbid people from moving around the French-ruled island.

Police reinforcements adding 500 officers to the 1,800 usually present on the island, have been sent after rioters torched vehicles and businesses and looted stores. Schools have been shut and there is already a curfew in the capital.

Rioting broke out over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that will let French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections – a move some local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

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“No violence will be tolerated,” said Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, adding that the state of emergency “will allow us to roll out massive means to restore order.”

He later signed a decree declaring a state of emergency that will last for 12 days and announced that French soldiers would be used to secure New Caledonia’s main port and airport.

Authorities also decided to ban video app TikTok, which the government during a bout of riots on France’s mainland last summer said helped rioters organise and amplified the chaos, attracting troublemakers to the streets.

TikTok could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier in the day, a spokesperson for New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou said three young indigenous Kanak had died in the riots. The French government later said a 24-year-old police official had died from a gunshot wound.

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“He took off his helmet (to speak to residents) and he was shot right in the head,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

Noumea resident Yoan Fleurot told Reuters in a Zoom interview that he was staying at home out of respect for the nightly curfew and was very scared for his family.

“I don’t see how my country can recover after this”, Fleurot said, adding he carries a gun during the day when he goes out to film the rioters he called ‘terrorists’.

Police were outnumbered by protesters, locals told Reuters.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France’s role in the mineral-rich island, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia.

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France annexed the island in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It has long been rocked by pro-independence movements.

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New Caledonia is the world’s No. 3 nickel miner and residents have been hit by a crisis in the sector, with one in five living under the poverty threshold.

“Politicians have a huge share of responsibility,” said 30-year-old Henri, who works in a hotel in Noumea. “Loyalist politicians, who are descendents of colonialists, say colonisation is over, but Kanak politicians don’t agree. There are huge economic disparities,” he said.

Henri, who declined to give his full name, said there was significant looting, with the situation most dangerous at night.

The French government has said the change in voting rules was needed so elections would be democratic.

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But it said it would not rush calling a special congress of the two houses of parliament to rubber-stamp the bill and has invited pro- and anti-independence camps for talks in Paris on the future of the island, opening the door to a potential suspension of the bill.

The major pro-independence political group, Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), which condemned the violence, said it would accept the offer of dialogue and was willing to work towards an agreement “that would allow New Caledonia to follow its path toward emancipation”.

Most residents were staying indoors.

Witness Garrido Navarro Kherachi said she moved to New Caledonia when she was eight years old, and has never been back to France. Although eligible to vote under the new rules, she says she won’t “out of respect for the Kanak people”.

“I don’t feel I know enough about the history of Caledonia and the struggle of the Kanak people to allow me to vote,” she said.

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