Syria’s military and Hizbullah forces kill 175 rebels in ambush

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NICOSIA — The Syrian military has reported a major victory over Islamist rebels.

The regime of President Bashar Assad said the Syrian Army killed at least 175 rebels in an attack south of Damascus on Feb. 26.

Syrian soldiers inspect the bodies of opposition fighters after an army ambush in the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus, in a photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency, SANA, on Feb. 26. /SANA

Syrian soldiers inspect the bodies of opposition fighters in the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus on Feb. 26. /SANA

A government statement, confirmed by the opposition, said the Army ambushed a rebel force, which included foreign fighters, near Lake Oteibah.

“Upon intelligence information, a unit of the Army killed members of an armed terrorist group, among them of Saudi, Qatari and Chechen nationalities, in the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus countryside,” the official Syrian news agency, Sana, said.

On Feb. 26, Sana quoted an unidentified Army commander as saying that the rebels stemmed from Al Qaida’s Nusra Front for the Defense of the Levant as well as Liwa Al Islam. The commander said the rebel force were trying to break out of the military’s siege of Eastern Ghouta, a string of suburbs south of Damascus.

Officials said the rebel force could have sought to link with Islamist fighters trained and equipped by the United States. They said hundreds of fighters were crossing from Jordan to Syria to ease the siege around Damascus. In mid-February, a force of several hundred CIA-trained rebels were reported to have crossed the Jordanian border where they were ambushed by Islamist militias in southern Syria.

“He affirmed that the armed group was trying to ease pressure on
terrorists, who underwent severe strikes from the Syrian Army in Al
Qalamoun, by bringing terrorists, supported by Western and regional states
through the borders of Jordan,” Sana quoted the Army commander as saying.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 152 rebels were
killed in the Syrian Army strike. Syrian Observatory, based in Britain, said
most of the casualties stemmed from Nusra and Liwa.

“This is the heaviest loss for Nusra Front and Islamic brigades since
the start of the revolution,” Syrian Observatory director Rami Abdul Rahman

Opposition sources said the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah led the
operation against the rebels. They said Hizbullah began the dawn attack by
detonating bombs along the route used by Nusra and Liwa.

“Hizbullah was the main group that implemented the ambush,” Abdul Rahman

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Israel improves defense ties with top European ally Germany

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JERUSALEM — Germany and Israel have pledged to enhance defense and security cooperation.

In a joint statement, the governments of Berlin and Jerusalem said the two countries would develop defense research and technology. The statement, which ended German-Israeli consultations, also cited a dialogue on mutual threats.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gesture during a joint press conference at the King David hotel in Jerusalem, Feb. 25.  /Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem on Feb. 25. /Getty

“The defense ministers will continue to improve existing defense ties and to foster close cooperation between both countries,” the joint statement on Feb. 25 said. “This will be a mutually beneficial and trustful relationship, which is based on true partnership and operational experience, facilitated further by our respective technological and industrial infrastructure.”

Officials said Israel has closer defense relations with Germany than virtually any other country in Europe. They said cooperation has encompassed joint defense projects, intelligence exchange and arms sales.

“The defense establishments will continue their dialogue and cooperation in the face of shared threats and concerns, regionally and globally, in order to promote security in a way that will serve the mutual long-term interests of Israel and Germany,” the statement said.

The biggest project was identified as the German sale of Dolphin-class
electric-diesel submarines by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. Officials said
two of three Dolphins ordered for the Israel Navy would be introduced in
service over the next year.

The consultations took place during the visit by Chancellor Angela
Merkel to Israel. Ms. Merkel, accompanied by her defense and interior
ministers, spent much of her public appearances promoting the establishment
of a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Officials said Germany and Israel would expand their cooperation to
include cyber as well as border security. They said the two countries would
seek to develop a common biometrics system to identify insurgency suspects.

“The governments seek to further strengthen their cooperation on
cyber-security and combating cyber-crime, and to expand knowledge,
understanding and expertise on cyber security from technological, strategic,
social, international and legal perspectives,” the statement said.

“They will cooperate to the greatest extent possible in order to create a
desirable situation in which potential interference with the authenticity,
integrity and availability of data or any other harm to the participants in
cyberspace is reduced to a tolerable degree.”

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Israel tests laser system to protect passenger jets from shoulder-fired missiles

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TEL AVIV — Israel has completed trials of a missile warning system for commercial aircraft.

The Defense Ministry said it oversaw trials of the SkyShield missile warning system, developed by Israel’s Elbit Systems. The ministry said the tests of SkyShield, also known as C-Music laser-based defense system, were successful.

The SkyShield system was built to protect aircraft from portable surface-to-air missiles. /Elbit Systems

The SkyShield system was built to protect aircraft from portable surface-to-air missiles. /Elbit Systems

“The experiments, carried out in southern Israel, were some of the most complex and sophisticated ever carried out in Israel,” the Defense Ministry said. “They simulated a range of threats that SkyShield will have to deal with.”

SkyShield was designed to use a laser beam to deflect surface-to-air missiles fired at passenger and other civilian aircraft. The system took about a decade and nearly $200 million to develop, assisted by the Israeli government after a failed Al Qaida SAM attack on an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya in 2002.

The Israeli Transportation Ministry has selected SkyShield to protect Israeli airliners from shoulder-fired missiles.

Officials said a major threat was that of SAM fire by Al Qaida militias from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The Defense Ministry deemed SkyShield the most advanced civilian aircraft defense system in the world. The ministry did not say when the system would be deployed.

Elbit has reported orders of SkyShield from the air forces of Brazil and
Italy. The company also said Israel, which earlier used flare and chaffe,
has ordered the system.

“The success of the test has proven the system’s qualitative
capabilities and positions Israel as a global leader in the field of
protection of aircraft against shoulder-launched missiles,” Elbit president
Bezhalel Machlis said.

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Kim Jong-Un mandates Chinese-style family farming to boost ‘enthusiasm for agricultural productivity’

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By Lee Jong-Heon,

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has indicated that he would phase out equal distribution of farmers’ harvests and drive market economy-based competition and incentive in the country’s moribund agriculture sector.

Kim Jong-Un inspects vegetable greenhouses on a farm in South Pyongan.

Kim Jong-Un inspects vegetable greenhouses on a farm in South Pyongan.

In a letter distributed to farmers, Kim also stressed the need for expanding Chinese-style family-based farming as part of efforts to increase agricultural productivity, while ordering that farmers should not be mobilized for non-agricultural programs, according to Pyongyang’s state media.

“Egalitarianism in the realm of distribution is not matched with principles in socialist distribution and only discourages farmers’ production will,� Kim said.

He called for full implementation of the new farming system highlighted by small-scale farming, apparently alluding to the unproductive and inefficient nature of collective farms.

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U.S. begins training Iraqis on Apache helicopters after green light from Congress

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WASHINGTON — The United States has been preparing for a major military training program for Iraq.

Officials said the U.S. military would train its Iraqi counterpart in the operation of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. They said the program would begin in early March 2014 in Iraq.

U.S. Apache helicopters

U.S. Apache helicopters

“Things are moving rapidly for the first stage of the program,” an official said.

On Feb. 13, a senior military officer said the first stage of the U.S. program would train 16 Iraqis to fly the Apache. Maj. Gen. William Bender, deputy director of the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, told a briefing that the training project would include private contractors.

The administration of President Barack Obama has approved an Iraqi request for the export of 24 AH-64E Apaches in a deal worth $4.8 billion. In the first stage of the project, the Pentagon would lease six Apaches to the Iraqi military for training.

In the briefing, Bender said Apache prime contractor Boeing has not begun production of the Apaches for Iraq. He did not elaborate.

The Apaches, which were not blocked by Congress, marked the second
biggest U.S. arms project in Iraq. Bender said the Baghdad government signed
a 30-year contract with Lockheed Martin for the delivery of up to 36 F-16
Block 52 multi-role fighters.

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Chinese criticize state firm behind Three Gorges dam over graft probe

By Li Hui and Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – A scathing report on corruption at the company that built China’s $59-billion Three Gorges dam, the world’s biggest hydropower scheme, has reignited public anger over a project funded through a special levy paid by all citizens.

The report by the ruling Communist Party’s anti-graft watchdog last week found that some officials at the Three Gorges Corporation, set up in 1993 to run the scheme, were guilty of nepotism, shady property deals and dodgy bidding procedures.

Between 1992 and 2009, all citizens had to pay a levy built into power prices across China to channel money to the dam’s construction, a project overshadowed by compulsory relocations of residents and environmental concerns.

“The relatives and friends of some leaders interfered with construction projects, certain bidding was conducted secretly … and some leaders illicitly occupied multiple apartments,” the graft watchdog said on its website(

The Three Gorges Corporation published a statement on its website on Tuesday saying it would look into the issues the probe raised, and strictly punish any corrupt conduct and violations of the law and party discipline.

The accusations – made as part of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on deep-rooted corruption – have spread rapidly across China’s popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, and some of China’s more outspoken newspapers have weighed in too.

Time-Weekly, a newspaper based in southern China’s Guangzhou city, this week revealed further details of the graft.

In one case, the newspaper reported, a company bidding for a construction project related to the dam area was told to pay a bribe of one million yuan ($163,200) by members of the hydropower giant’s bidding evaluation panel.

“Because of its fully state-owned background … it was given special ‘protection’, and for years was practically free of supervision and regulations,” the newspaper wrote.

The Southern Metropolitan Daily called in an editorial for the full weight of the law to be applied to a firm that has sucked up so many national resources.

“The entire strength of China converged on building this one massive project,” it wrote. “Enormous sums went into it, great powers were bestowed. But the oversight over these powers which should have been there, was not.”

On Weibo, the topic ranks among the most widely discussed subjects.

“Did the Three Gorges fund paid by us all on every electricity bill actually go to feed dogs?” wrote one user.

“Why did the Three Gorges Corporation, fed and nurtured by us all, become an ‘unifilal son’?” asked another user.

This is not the first time the company – and the project – have come in for criticism.

Late last year, soon after the party sent its graft inspection team into the Three Gorges Corporation, a senior official involved in “follow-up” work on the dam was fired for “suspected serious disciplinary violations”, the usual euphemism for corruption.

In 2011, then-premier Wen Jiabao presided over a government meeting on the dam which said that though the scheme did provide benefits, it had created a myriad of urgent problems, from the relocation of more than a million residents to risks of geological disasters.

And back in 2000, six years before the project was complete, authorities busted a ring of officials who siphoned off hundreds of millions of yuan in resettlement funds.

($1=6.1284 Chinese yuan)

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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EBay founder rejects Icahn’s call for PayPal spinoff

(Reuters) – EBay Inc founder and Chairman Pierre Omidyar rejected investor Carl Icahn’s call to separate the company’s fast-growing PayPal payments unit, saying the businesses were better off together.

Omidyar, who is the largest shareholder in eBay with a stake of 8.37 percent, said separating PayPal from eBay was not a new idea and the board had evaluated the option but decided to keep the businesses together.

Icahn, who disclosed a 2.15 percent stake in the e-commerce company last week, had also accused two long-time eBay board members, Marc Andreessen and Scott Cook, of having business interests that directly competed with eBay.

“Instead of having an honest discussion about a reasonable question, Mr. Icahn has chosen to attack the integrity of two highly respected and qualified board members, Scott Cook and Marc Andreessen,” Omidyar said in a statement.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen defended the corporate-governance practices of the technology industry in an interview with the Wall Street Journal saying, “If I’m on a public board and that public company is looking at buying a company in a certain space and one of my startups is in that space, I will not be part of that conversation.”

“This has been established over decades of corporate governance and there’s nothing unique to tech about it,” Andreessen told the Journal. (

(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee and Varun Aggarwal in Bangalore; Editing by Kirti Pandey and Supriya Kurane)

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British spy agency collected images of Yahoo webcam chats: Guardian

By Julia Fioretti

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s spy agency GCHQ intercepted millions of people’s webcam chats and stored still images of them, including sexually explicit ones, the Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday.

GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 provided to the newspaper by the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, revealed that the surveillance program, codenamed Optic Nerve, saved one image every five minutes from randomly selected Yahoo Inc webcam chats and stored them on agency databases.

Optic Nerve, which began as a prototype in 2008 and was still active in 2012, was intended to test automated facial recognition, monitor GCHQ’s targets and uncover new ones, the Guardian said. It said that under British law, there are no restrictions preventing images of U.S. citizens being accessed by British intelligence.

GCHQ collected images from the webcam chats of more than 1.8 million users globally in a six-month period in 2008 alone, the newspaper reported.

“It is a long-standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters,” a GCHQ representative said on Thursday.

In another sign of the widespread information-sharing between U.S. and British spy agencies which has riled public and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, the webcam information was fed into the NSA’s search tool and all of the policy documents were available to NSA analysts, the paper said.

It was not clear, however, whether the NSA had access to the actual database of Yahoo webcam images, the Guardian reported.

Yahoo said it had no knowledge the interceptions.

“We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity. This (Guardian) report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable,” company spokeswoman Suzanne Philion said in an emailed statement.

Snowden, now in Russia after fleeing the United States, made world headlines last summer when he provided details of NSA surveillance programs to the Guardian and the Washington Post.

For decades, the NSA and GCHQ have shared intelligence under an arrangement known as the UKUSA agreement. They also collaborate with eavesdropping agencies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand in what is known as the “Five Eyes” alliance.

Under Optic Nerve, GCHQ tried to limit its staff’s ability to see the webcam images, but they could still see the images of people with similar usernames to intelligence targets, the Guardian said.

GCHQ also implemented restrictions on the collection of sexually explicit images, but its software was not always able to distinguish between these and other images.

“Discussing efforts to make the interface “safer to use”, it (GCHQ) noted that current “naïve” pornography detectors assessed the amount of flesh in any given shot, and so attracted lots of false positives by incorrectly tagging shots of people’s faces as pornography,” the newspaper said.

The spy agency eventually excluded images in which the software had not detected any faces from search results to prevent staff from accessing explicit images, it added.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Catherine Evans and Grant McCool)

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Identity theft again leads U.S. top fraud complaints: FTC

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The seemingly intractable problem of identity theft led the list of top consumer complaints once again in 2013, with U.S. consumers reporting that they lost over $1.6 billion to various types of fraud, the Federal Trade Commission said in a report released on Thursday.

Of the 2 million consumer complaints that the commission received last year, 290,056, or about 14 percent, were related to identity theft, the FTC said.

“This (identify theft) has topped the list since at least 2006,” said David Torok, director of the FTC’s Division of Planning and Information.

Identity thieves can make purchases on credit cards they do not own, make withdrawals from a victim’s bank account or take out loans in the victim’s name, among other kinds of fraud.

Florida had the highest per capita rate of fraud, with 804.9 people reporting a problem out of every 100,000 in population, the FTC said in its report for 2013. North Dakota had the lowest rate of reported fraud.

The average victim lost $2,294, according to the FTC, which said that 61 percent of those defrauded in 2013 put a dollar value on their losses.

A total of 43 percent of fraud victims were reached through email, while 21 percent were telephoned and another 20 percent were defrauded through a website, the FTC said.


While identity fraud was the top source of consumer complaints at 14 percent in 2013, debt collection (10 percent) was second. Complaints were such things as a collector either tried to collect a debt that was not owed, harassed a debtor or made false statements about debt.

Another 7 percent of complaints were related to banks and lenders, such as payday loan problems or unexpected overdraft charges. Imposter scams, such as people claiming to be from the government and demanding payment of a debt that does not exist, accounted for 6 percent of the reported fraud cases.

Complaints about telephone and mobile services were also at 6 percent each, including such problems as unexpected charges on mobile or phone bills.

Rounding out the top 10 consumer complaints were: concerns about prizes and lotteries (4 percent); auto-related complaints (4 percent); shop-at-home and catalog sales (3 percent); television and electronic media (3 percent) and advance payment for credit services (2 percent).

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Jonathan Oatis and G Crosse)

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Will secrecy of lethal injection be lifted?

Despite growing controversy over the use of anonymous pharmacies for lethal injections, the U.S. Supreme Court has thus far declined to block any executions based on 11th-hour appeals challenging the drug connections.

That includes the case of Michael Taylor, a convicted rapist and murderer who was put to death at 12:10 a.m. Wednesday in Missouri after a furious legal battle that stretched well into the night.

It’s worth nothing, however, that three high court justices wanted to block Taylor’s execution and cited the words of an appeals judge who said so little was known about the source of the deadly dose of pentobarbital that it “could be nothing more than a high school chemistry class.”

The strongly worded dissent from Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kermit Bye — echoed by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — is giving some defense lawyers hope the veil of secrecy will be lifted by the judiciary.

“It seems that the issues raised in Judge Bye’s dissent are starting to at least resonate with some members of the Supreme Court,” said Allen Bohnert, a federal capital defender from Ohio.

Bohnert represented Dennis McGuire, who was executed in Ohio in January for raping and stabbing to death a pregnant woman. Witnesses said it took 25 minutes for McGuire to die and he gasped for breath after an untried cocktail of drugs hit his bloodstream.

Image: Dennis McGuire

With the supply of drugs traditionally used to carry out executions dwindling, states are scrambling for other sources. At the same time, they are insisting on secrecy, which defense lawyers say makes it impossible to challenge an execution’s legality.

“The defendant who’s about to be executed might want to claim that what the state is going to do to him is cruel and usual punishment. But he’s not allowed to know the source of drugs or the education of the pharmacist who made them,” says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty.

“You can’t find out whether the maker has been cited for contaminated drugs, because you don’t know his name.”

Three cases pending before the Supreme Court challenge the use of untested drug protocols and state restrictions on the chemicals’ source. And battles to require transparency are being waged in state courts, too.

  • Christopher Supulvado, a convicted murder on death row in Louisiana, is challenging that state’s lack of disclosure. “Our claim is not that the protocol is bad. Instead, we say we need to know in time what the protocol is, and the state keeps changing it at the last second and not telling us,” said his lawyer, Tom Goldstein.
  • Georgia’s Supreme Court is considering a challenge to a state law, passed last year, that declares information about the source of its drugs to be “a confidential state secret.”
  • Two Oklahoma inmates, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, sued the state Wednesday for refusing to reveal the origin of the drugs for their March executions.

Warner’s lawyer, Madeline Cohen, said the dissent in Taylor’s execution “is the first sign that some of the justices are concerned with what’s going on.”

Added Bohnert, “I would like to think that this untenable bind will be straightened out by the Court at some point, because it effectively obliterates any possibility of showing an Eighth Amendment violation based on problems with execution drugs.”

Earlier Challenge

In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld what was then a widely used combination of three drugs, administered in sequence, to carry out a lethal injection.

Opponents claimed if a state failed to properly inject the first of them, an inmate was left awake but paralyzed, in intense pain but unable to cry out. The court said some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution but that critics did not show another method would be clearly more humane.

Two years after that ruling, the makers of two of the drugs used in the combination decided they no longer wanted to be part of the death penalty process and prison supplies began drying up. In response, states began turning to compounding pharmacies, which are seen as less regulated.

Specialty pharmacies that were unmasked became targets of protests and litigation. A Texas compounder asked for its drugs to be returned; one in Oklahoma agreed not to take part in Taylor’s execution, forcing Missouri to buy elsewhere.

States are anxious to shield the dwindling number of suppliers.

In a court filing, Georgia said divulging the identity of execution participants “is likely to subject the drug manufacturers, suppliers, testing labs, and healthcare professionals to harassment, potential loss of business and other adverse consequences.”

Nine other states either have similar laws or insist their public records laws allow them to keep the pharmacy names secret, said Jen Moreno of the death penalty clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Executions have come to a halt in six of the nation’s 32 death penalty states, as well as in the federal system, in response to lawsuits over the lethal injection process or concern about untested protocols, she said.

Some that have gone forward have given defense lawyers ammunition to argue the new protocols amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

In the dissent cited by the Supreme Court’s Ginsburg, Missouri judge Bye pointed to the January execution of Michael Lee Wilson, condemned to die for beating a co-worker to death in 1995.

He took particular note of Wilson’s final six words, uttered 12 seconds after compounded drugs were injected into his veins: “I feel my whole body burning.”

NBC News’ Tracy Connor contributed to this story.

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