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How China’s balloon sent the US on a hunt for flying objects

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How China's balloon sent the US on a hunt for flying objects

After the U.S. government announced last week that a fleet of Chinese spy balloons had visited the United States undetected in recent years, the military had to admit the obvious: it had an “awareness gap.”

So the U.S. military has been adjusting its radar to find flying objects – including balloons – that are smaller, slower and differently shaped than the enemy aircraft and missiles that have long preoccupied the Pentagon.

The result has been a spate of unprecedented shootdowns of mysterious objects – including on Sunday an octagonal structure downed by an F-16 over Lake Huron – raising still-unanswered questions about whether these phenomena are new or if they’ve been around all along.

U.S. officials acknowledge they are hard to find, even for the world’s most sophisticated military.

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“What makes them really hard to detect and track is their size and potentially the shape,” said Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), describing them as “very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section.”

The suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States earlier this month led politicians to criticize the .S. military and U.S. President Joe Biden for not shooting it down when it first entered U.S. airspace.

The Pentagon said there had been four previous Chinese spy balloon flights over the United States in recent years.

RADAR ADJUSTMENTS

U.S. officials told Reuters that NORAD has been adjusting the filters and algorithms it uses to examine radar data, making them sensitive enough to detect these kinds of objects – ones whose ability to stay aloft, moving with the wind, is confounding U.S. officials.

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Officials say a key change was to NORAD’s filters to allow them to detect objects moving slowly and at different altitudes, without specifying which ones.

“We have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar,” said Melissa Dalton, an assistant secretary of defense.

Following identification, the question is how to determine which hits on the radar are merely noise and which are possible threats worth scrambling U.S. military pilots to chase after.

So far the result has been a series of visual confirmations and shootdowns – three over the past three days – and accompanying closures of American and Canadian airspace to avoid collisions between military and civilian aircraft.

“We’re definitely looking harder now,” said a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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On Friday, a U.S. F-22 fighter jet shot down an unidentified object about the size of a small car near Deadhorse, Alaska.

And on Saturday, another F-22 brought down an object described by Canada as similar in shape to but significantly smaller than the Chinese spy balloon hit by a U.S. missile on Feb. 4 off South Carolina’s coast.

The latest object to get shot down on Sunday likely floated from Montana over to Lake Huron, where an F-16 brought it down with a Sidewinder missile, the same weapon used against the Chinese balloon and the unidentified objects. Each Sidewinder costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

VanHerck said the military considered shooting guns at the objects, but this was deemed too difficult given the small targets. Using guns would also be more dangerous for the pilot, since debris can more easily hit an aircraft firing at close range than one launching a missile from a distance.

NO PRECENDENT

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The U.S. military said the object shot down on Sunday appeared to have traveled near U.S. military sites and was a surveillance risk as well as a threat to civilian aviation.

“Our team will now work to recover the object in an effort to learn more,” the Pentagon said.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer, said on Twitter he could think of no precedent for the flurry of incidents.

“Nowhere on the ‘Risk to US interests’ bingo card is what has occurred over the last week,” Polymeropoulos wrote, calling for transparency from the U.S. intelligence community.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the U.S. public deserved better answers about the objects than they have now.

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“We need to understand the nature of the threat to our national security,” Bennet said.

Whether this is the start of regular shootdowns of unidentified objects over American skies is still unclear.

VanHerck said the military would come after any unknown object that posed a threat to North America.

“If it is a threat. I’ll shoot it down,” he said. 

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Hong Kong rejects US report criticising crackdown on freedoms

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Hong Kong rejects US report criticising crackdown on freedoms

HONG KONG, (Reuters) – Hong Kong on Saturday “firmly rejected” findings in a new U.S. government report that said U.S. interests had been threatened and that Beijing continued to “undermine” the rule of law and freedoms in the territory under a national security crackdown.

The U.S.’ 2023 Hong Kong Policy Act Report, published by the U.S. State Department, said Chinese and Hong Kong authorities “continued to use ‘national security’ as a broad and vague basis to undermine the rule of law and protected rights and freedoms.”

China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 without any local legislative or consultative process, outlawing crimes such as subversion with possible life imprisonment.

Authorities say the law restored order after protracted pro-democracy protests in 2019, that called for, among other demands, full democracy.

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The city’s tougher security regimen mirrors mainland China, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping has implemented a fierce crackdown on dissent over the past decade, jailing critics and rights defenders.

“Hong Kong authorities continued to arrest and prosecute people for peaceful political expression critical of the local and central governments, including for posting and forwarding social media posts,” the U.S. report said.

A Hong Kong government spokesman, however, said in a statement that it “strongly disapproved of and firmly rejected the unfounded and fact-twisting remarks” in the report.

“The U.S.’ attempt to undermine the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong will only expose its own weakness and faulty arguments and be doomed to fail.”

The spokesman added the safeguarding of national security was of “cardinal importance” and all people are equal under the law regardless of political stance or background.

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Over 230 people have been arrested for alleged acts endangering national security since 2020, including 47 prominent democrats now battling subversion conspiracy charges in a landmark trial that will continue for several months.

The U.S. report also noted a drop in the number of U.S. citizens in Hong Kong from 85,000 in 2021 to around 70,000 due to a number of factors including tight Covid restrictions and national security.

China “increasingly exercised police and security power in Hong Kong, subjecting U.S. citizens who are publicly critical of the PRC (China) to a heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution in Hong Kong,” the report wrote, adding these risks had been highlighted in its government travel advisories for Hong Kong.

Forty of the 100 U.S. senators co-sponsored a resolution earlier this month urging a strong U.S. government response to any Chinese efforts to clamp down on dissent in Hong Kong, including the use of sanctions and other tools.

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Saudi Arabia issues new guidelines for Umrah during Ramazan

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Saudi Arabia issues new guidelines for Umrah during Ramazan

The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has issued new guidelines for pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah during the holy month of Ramazan.

The ministry reiterated recently that pilgrims are no longer allowed to repeat Umrah and can only perform it once during the holy month.

This move aims at ensuring that all the pilgrims, who wish to perform Umrah during Ramazan, have the opportunity to do so with ease and comfort.

Last month, the Saudi government allowed pilgrims travelling to the Kingdom to perform Umrah to commute through the country’s all international airports.

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KSA’s General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) had issued a notification later. The authority directed the flights carrying passengers to the Kingdom to follow the guidelines. If violated, they will take stern action against them.

Earlier, the pilgrims travelling under visas for Umrah were allowed to travel through Jeddah and Medina airports only.

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Prominent Afghan girls’ education activist arrested in Kabul

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Prominent Afghan girls' education activist arrested in Kabul

KABUL (AFP) – The founder of a project that campaigned for girls’ education in Afghanistan has been detained by Taliban authorities in Kabul, his brother and the United Nations said Tuesday.

The Taliban government last year barred girls from attending secondary school and later university, making Afghanistan the only country in the world to issue such restrictions on education.

Matiullah Wesa, the head of PenPath was stopped by men outside a mosque after prayers on Monday evening, his brother Samiullah Wesa told AFP.

“When Matiullah asked for their identity cards, they beat him and forcefully took him away,” he said.

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“He has been arrested for his activities in the education sector. He never worked with anybody else, neither with the previous government. He only worked for PenPath.”

The UN mission in Afghanistan confirmed in a tweet that Matiullah had been arrested.

Taliban officials have so far not responded to requests for comment.

PenPath campaigns for schools and distributes books in rural areas, and has long dedicated itself to communicating the importance of girls’ education to elders in villages, where attitudes have been slowly changing.

Since the ban on secondary schools for girls, Wesa has continued visiting remote areas to drum up support from locals.

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“Men, women, elderly, young, everyone from every corner of the country are asking for the Islamic rights to education of their daughters,” he said in a tweet, hours before he was arrested.

Last week, as the new school year started without teenage girls, he vowed to continue his campaign.

“The damage that closure of schools causes is irreversible and undeniable. We held meetings with locals and we will continue our protest if the schools remain closed,” he tweeted.

Taliban officials have so far not responded to requests for comment.

‘Raise your voice’

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The Taliban government have imposed an austere interpretation of Islam since storming back to power in August 2021 after the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces that backed the previous governments.

Taliban leaders have repeatedly claimed they will reopen schools for girls once certain conditions have been met.

They say they lack the funds and time to remodel the syllabus along Islamic lines.

Taliban authorities made similar assurances during their first stint in power — from 1996 to 2001 — but girls’ schools never opened in five years.

In a recent speech in Geneva, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett said that the Taliban authorities’ policy was to “repudiate the human rights of women and girls” in Afghanistan.

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“It may amount to the crime of gender persecution, for which the authorities can be held accountable,” he said.

The order against girls’ education is believed to have been made by Afghanistan’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and his ultra-conservative aides, who are deeply sceptical of modern education — especially for women.

As well as sparking international outrage, it has stirred criticism from within the movement, with some senior officials in the Kabul government as well as many rank-and-file members against the decision.

Matiullah is the second leading educator to be arrested in recent months for campaigning for girls’ education.

In February, the authorities detained veteran journalism lecturer, Ismail Mashal, after local media showed him carting books around Kabul and offering them to passersby.

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It followed a live appearance on television in which he tore up his degree certificates to condemn the Taliban government’s restrictions on women’s right to work and education.

UN special rapporteur Bennett expressed alarm at Matiullah’s arrest: “His safety is paramount & all his legal rights must be respected.”

“Raise your voice for him,” added Pashtana Zalmai Khan Durrani, the head of Afghan non-profit education provider Learn.

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