Washington, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — A top U.S. commander said Tuesday that he has not seen any effort by North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons program since President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met for nuclear talks last year.
Army Gen. Robert Abrams testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of Trump's second meeting with Kim later this month in Hanoi, Vietnam. The U.S. hopes North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to punishing international sanctions.
Abrams called the second meeting a "positive sign of continued dialogue," but added, "We have not observed activity that's consistent with a full-court press on denuclearization."
He said there has been a reduction in tensions along the Korean Demilitarized Zone — the buffer zone between North and South Korea — and cited he North's decision to stop missile tests and other provocative actions, but said, "Little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea's military capabilities."
Abrams noted it has been some 440 days since North Korea conducted a missile test or a nuclear weapons explosion. But he said North Korea's existing capabilities, along with its continued development of advanced conventional systems, remain unchecked.
"The only observable change has been a reduction in the attention and bellicosity the regime layers onto its military activities. Since the end of 2017, Pyongyang has reduced its hostile rhetoric and halted media coverage of Kim Jong Un's attending capstone events such as large-scale, live-fire training or special operations raids on mock-up alliance targets," Abrams said.
"It is, however, too soon to conclude that a lower profile is indicative of lesser risk," Abrams said.
He advised the committee to maintain a force in the region to deter any possible aggression by North Korea against the United States, South Korea or regional allies. There are about 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Kuala Lumpur, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Malaysian authorities have seized a record 30 tons of pangolin and pangolin products in eastern Sabah state on Borneo, the biggest such bust in the country, a wildlife monitoring group said Tuesday.
The monitoring network Traffic said in a statement that Sabah police this month uncovered two major pangolin processing facilities, throwing a spotlight on Sabah's role in the sourcing and trafficking of the endangered scaly mammal.
Sabah police said over the weekend they had seized three refrigerated containers containing 1,800 boxes filled with frozen pangolins, another 572 frozen pangolins in separate freezers, 61 live pangolins and 361 kilograms of pangolin scales. Two bear paws and carcasses of four flying fox were also recovered. A 35-year-old Malaysian man, believed to be a factory manager, has been detained.
The pangolin is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world, and its scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The scales are made of keratin, the same material in human fingernails. Their meat is also considered a delicacy in China and other Asian countries.
Sabah police chief Omar Mammah said in the statement that initial investigations showed the facility has operated for seven years and that the suspect had bought the pangolins from local illegal hunters for distribution locally and to the neighboring state of Sarawak. He estimated the haul to be worth at least 8.4 million ringgit ($2 million).
Traffic said the whole pangolin bodies found frozen and boxed were likely to have been sold for meat consumption.
"Including this bust, Sabah has been implicated in over 40 tons of pangolin smuggling since August 2017, including 13 tons of African pangolin scales," it said.
It said the seizures came a decade after Sabah authorities discovered logbooks in 2009 kept by another pangolin trafficking ring. It said the logbooks revealed that about 22,200 pangolins were killed and 834.4 kilograms of pangolin scales sourced throughout the state and supplied to the syndicate over 13 months.
There were occasional seizures of live and processed pangolins since then. But a massive seizure of African pangolin scale shipments in 2017 at a Sabah port and at the Kuala Lumpur International airport originating from Sabah has since highlighted Sabah's emerging role as a transit point in the global trafficking of pangolin scales from Africa to Asia, TRAFFIC said.
The latest "seizure and the 2009 discovery confirm that Borneo is still an important source of pangolins for the illegal trade," Traffic communications officer Elizabeth John told the Associated Press.
Kabul, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Afghanistan's first president following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country and the collapse in 1992 of Kabul's pro-communist government, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, has died. He was 93.
The white-turbaned and soft-spoken Mujadidi was a mentor to former President Hamid Karzai, who had belonged to his anti-communist resistance group during the 1980's Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Mujadidi's guerrilla group — the U.S.-backed Afghan National Liberation Front — was perhaps the smallest and most moderate of guerrilla groups fighting to oust the former Red Army from Afghanistan.
The Soviet invasion came at the height of the Cold War between America and the former Soviet Union. The last Soviet soldier withdrew from Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, ending a 10-year invasion that had failed to defeat the U.S.-backed anti-communist guerrillas who were known at the time as mujahedeen, or holy warriors.
President Ronald Reagan called the mujahedeen freedom fighters. Some later became the Taliban while others were known as warlords who later turned political leaders in Afghanistan. Some rights activists have accused the warlords of fomenting Afghanistan's post-2001 decline, contributing to the nation's insecurity and widespread corruption.
Following the collapse of the communist government, Mujadidi in 1992 served for two months as Afghanistan's president in line with an agreement signed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by the leaders of all the mujahedeen groups who had fought the former Soviet Union.
Mujadidi stepped down as he said he would, according to the agreement, but his successor, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was to serve for four months instead hung on to power for four years. The agreement broke down and a brutal war between rival mujahedeen groups engulfed the Afghan capital of Kabul, killing tens of thousands of mostly civilians until the Taliban took power in 1996.
During the Taliban rule, Mujadidi lived outside of Afghanistan and returned to the country following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that drove the Taliban from power. He served as head of the first post-Taliban Loya Jirga, the 2,500-member council of elders or "grand gathering" that eventually crafted Afghanistan's current constitution.
He also briefly served as head of the government High Peace Council tasked with trying to find a peaceful end to Afghanistan's war.
An ethnic Pashtun from Kabul, Mujadidi came from a deeply respected religious family, who often advised former Afghan kings on matters of religion.
"He was always seeking peace and stability for Afghanistan, but he died before he could see his wish fulfilled," said Attaulrahman Salim, deputy head of the peace council. "We are still a country at war."
New Delhi, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Seventeen people died in a fire early Tuesday at a hotel in western New Delhi that left at least four others injured, police said.
The fire at the Arpit Palace Hotel has been extinguished, but authorities are still investigating what sparked it, Deputy Police Commissioner Mandeep Singh Randhawa said.
"We have to check the stability of the structure, check every room," Randhawa said.
The hotel is located in Karol Bagh, an area in India's capital city full of shops and budget hotels that is popular with tourists.
Twenty-five fire engines responded to the blaze, which had engulfed all but the ground floor of the five-story hotel, fire officer Vijay Paul said.
About three dozen people were rescued from the hotel, Paul said.
Among those rescued was Sivanand Chand, 43, a hotel guest who was jolted awake around 4 a.m., struggling to breathe.
"When I got out of my room, I could hear 'help, help!' from adjoining rooms," Chand told The Associated Press, adding that he opened the window and saw flames rising very fast.
"In 15 minutes, the whole room was black," he said.
The rescue took about 30 minutes because fire engine ladders could not initially reach Chand's floor, he said.
The injured were taken to hospitals, but their medical conditions were not immediately known.
Istanbul , Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — A military helicopter crashed Monday in a residential area of Istanbul while trying to make an emergency landing, killing four soldiers on board, Turkish officials said.
The UH-1 type helicopter crashed on the grounds of a housing complex in the Cekmekoy district on Istanbul's Asian side, Gov. Ali Yerlikaya told reporters at the site. No one on the ground was hurt.
It was the second UH-1 crash in a residential area in Istanbul in the past three months.
In November, a military helicopter with five soldiers on board crashed during a training mission after hitting the roof of a building in the Sancaktepe neighborhood, also on Istanbul's Asian side.
The four soldiers in Monday's crash were hospitalized with injuries but Yerlikaya later told reporters they did not survive.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. The military said it had launched an investigation.
Television images showed emergency services working near the wreckage close to children's swings on a playground and thick smoke rising from the ground.