United Arab Emirates, Feb 18 (AP/UNB) — The United Arab Emirates' yearslong war in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia bled into the start of a biennial Abu Dhabi arms fair Sunday, which saw the Emirates sign $1.3 billion in weapons deals.
One manufacturer displayed a model of a machine gun on sale that's now in the hands of Emirati-backed militiamen in Yemen, while the armored personnel carriers and tanks used in the war in the Arab world's poorest country also could be seen at the show. Even the military show that began the fair included troops raiding a militant hideout equipped with both mobile and land-based ballistic missiles, just like those in the possession of Yemen's Houthi rebels.
While Emirati officials avoided discussing Yemen, allied American officials linked arms smuggling there to what they described as the wider malign activities of Iran across the greater Middle East.
"My assumption is there are still things going into Yemen that I need to stop. . There is nothing good happening by arms being illegally shipped into Yemen," said Vice Adm. James Malloy, the head of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet command that oversees the region. "It is destabilizing. It delays peace there. It exacerbates the disastrous humanitarian crisis that we're facing in Yemen and delays humanitarian efforts coming in."
Discussing the Houthis, Malloy added: "We see the world trying to end this thing and one group doing nothing to end it — probably the opposite."
The UAE entered Yemen's war in March 2015 alongside Saudi Arabia to back Yemen's internationally recognized government, which the Houthis had pushed out of the capital, Sanaa. The Emirates largely has handled ground operations in the conflict while the Saudis have bombed from the air.
The war has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and killed more than 60,000 people since 2016, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the conflict.
Atrocities have been common in the war.
Saudi airstrikes have hit markets and hospitals, killing civilians. Associated Press investigations have shown how the UAE negotiated secret deals with al-Qaida in Yemen fighters and that coalition forces tortured and sexually abused detainees. Meanwhile, the Houthis have indiscriminately laid land mines, employed child soldiers and tortured political opponents.
The U.S. had backed the Saudi-led coalition with midair refueling and targeting information. American lawmakers, angered by the Oct. 2 assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, have been pushing to withdraw U.S. support.
The Houthis also have fired over 150 ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, some even reaching as far as its capital, Riyadh. The West, United Nations experts and the Saudi-led coalition say Iran has helped supply the Shiite rebels with the missiles, something Iran denies.
That preoccupation with ballistic missiles fueled the opening ceremony of the International Defense Exhibition and Conference. The unnamed militia threatened to launch ballistic missiles, leading to an all-out assault by troops in armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters and jets. The demonstration's climax saw a fake ballistic missile slowly emerge from an underground silo, only to be destroyed by an airstrike.
That worry also saw the Emirates sign a $355-million deal Sunday with Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts, for surface-to-air Patriot missiles to protect against such launches.
Drones and other weaponry have been recovered from the Houthis and appear to be Iranian, experts say. Meanwhile, Western-made arms like those on display Sunday have ended up in the hands of militiamen in Yemen.
Rights group Amnesty International criticized Belgium's FN Herstal for displaying its 5.56 mm Minimi machine gun at the arms fair as it has been seen in the hands of Emirati-aligned militiamen. FN Herstal officials at the fair declined to comment.
The military buildup in the Emirates and elsewhere in the region has come amid concerns about Iran's influence after the 2015 nuclear deal it struck with world powers. While Iran continues to abide by its promise to limit its enrichment of uranium, the U.S. under President Donald Trump has pulled out of the accord.
Malloy, the head of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, didn't hesitate to describe Iran's actions in the region as "destabilizing," citing its renewed threats about cutting off the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes.
"The activities and the exercises that they engage in are inherently offensive in nature," the vice admiral said.
Iran, however, didn't represent the only ongoing geopolitical challenge seen at the arms fair. Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who often attends the arms fair, was a no-show amid the ongoing protests challenging his rule though his country displayed some of its weapons for sale. Bangladesh Prime Minsiter Sheikh Hasina attended the fair's opening ceremony, as did Guinea's prime minister and Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Meanwhile, China displayed weapons for sale ranging from missile launchers to drones. Already, China has sold armed drones to Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Emiratis in particularly had wanted American-made armed drones, but the Obama administration opposed the sales over the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 30-year-old agreement that aims to limit the spread of missile technology. Under Trump, the U.S. has permitted U.S. manufacturers to directly market and sell drones, including armed versions. The government still must approve and license the sales.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, the director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, acknowledged those efforts Sunday.
"We do understand that it's a very competitive world out there and we want to ensure that we're doing everything in our power to provide us systems the best in the world to our partners," Hooper said.
Syria, Feb 18 (AP/UNB) — Only the Syrian state can protect groups in northern Syria and the army will "liberate every inch of Syria" from foreign troops, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday.
He did not specifically mention the planned withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from northern Syria, but in a televised speech in Damascus he said no one should bet on protection from the Americans.
He appeared to be referring to U.S.-allied Kurdish groups in the north who fear a Turkish assault once American troops withdraw from northeastern Syria. The U.S. has partnered with local Kurdish militias in the fight against the Islamic State group. The extremists are on the verge of territorial defeat in Syria and President Donald Trump has said he wants U.S. troops to leave Syria in the coming months.
Trump's announcement has raised fears that Turkey may soon be able to launch an offensive on the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the north Syria-based Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Assad suggested the U.S. had sold out its Kurdish partners, and said that the Syrian army will return to the area after the American troop pullout.
"To those groups who are betting on the Americans, we say the Americans will not protect you... the Americans will put you in their pockets to be used as bargaining tools," he said.
"Every inch of Syria will be liberated, and any intruder is an enemy," Assad added.
Speaking confidently about the Syrian army's military advances on the ground, Assad called on refugees around the world to return to Syria.
The Syrian civil war, now almost eight years old, has left around 450,000 people dead and displaced half the country's population, including around six million outside the country.
Western countries and human rights organizations have said the security situation is not yet stable enough for their return, and the U.N. has said it cannot guarantee safety for those who do.
Without naming them specifically, Assad accused foreign countries of blocking the return of refugees.
"Syria is in need of all its sons and we call on refugees to return to take part in the process of reconstruction," Assad said.
Mexico City, Feb 18 (AP/UNB) — Mexico City authorities and media report that six people have been killed and three more wounded in a shooting at a street party in a hardscrabble borough.
The city prosecutor's office reports via Twitter that five men and one woman died from gunfire in Los Reyes Culhuacan in the borough of Iztapalapa. Two women and a man were taken to a hospital.
Prosecutors say the shooters fled and authorities are reviewing video from security cameras near the scene.
The Telediario news channel reports that the shooting took place before dawn Sunday. It says young people were drinking at a party in a small plaza outside a church when a fight broke out and then shots were fired.
Islamabad, Feb 18 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his four-day regional visit on Sunday, arriving in Pakistan where Saudi officials signed agreements worth $20 billion to help the Islamic nation overcome its financial crisis.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and top government and military officials greeted him at Islamabad's airport, where he received a 21-gun salute. Earlier, Pakistan Air Force jets escorted Prince Mohammad's flight when he entered the country's airspace.
At the airport, a young boy and girl in traditional Pakistani dress handed the prince flowers. He was greeted by a host of Pakistani Cabinet ministers and the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Khan himself drove the prince to the prime minister's residence, where he was met by an honor guard.
During his two-day stay in Pakistan, the crown prince will hold formal talks with Khan to find ways to enhance bilateral cooperation. Saudi Arabia will invest in the energy sector across the country, including setting up an oil refinery in the southwest near the border with Iran. The move will likely irk Tehran as Iran is Saudi Arabia's regional foe.
Shortly after his arrival, Prince Mohammad, accompanied by a high-powered delegation including leading businessmen and Cabinet ministers, attended a signing ceremony for the investment agreements worth $20 billion.
"This is first phase," he said, at the ceremony, adding that he hoped the future would bring even more Saudi investment in Pakistan.
"Saudi Arabia has always been a fiend of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has been a friend in need," Khan said.
Pakistan is in the grip of a major debt crisis and is seeking a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund but has yet to sign the deal which comes with tough conditions.
Prince Mohammad will later travel to neighboring India amid heightened tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi over this week's attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 41 troops.
This week also saw an attack in Iran that killed 27 Revolutionary Guard soldiers that was claimed by the Pakistan-based militant Jaish al-Adl group.
Pakistan condemned the attacks, but India and Iran blame it for the violence.
Pakistan enjoys close ties with Saudi Arabia. It maintains a balancing act between Riyadh and Tehran.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Sunday that the visit by the crown prince will take their countries' bilateral relations "to new heights."
Pakistan voiced support for the prince during the international outcry after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. Khan attended an investment conference in Saudi Arabia in October that saw a wave of cancellations linked to the Khashoggi killing.
The crown prince has called the killing a "heinous crime that cannot be justified."
Khashoggi, who had written critically about the prince, went missing on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After denying any knowledge of his death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually said that he was killed in an operation aimed at forcibly bringing the writer back to the kingdom.
Saudi prosecutors say the plan was masterminded by two former advisers to the crown prince.
The kingdom denies the crown prince knew of the plot.
Venezuela, Feb 15(AP/UNB) — A month into Venezuela's high-stakes political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an AP interview that his government held secret talks with the Trump administration and predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation.
While harshly criticizing President Donald Trump's confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said Thursday that he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president soon to resolve a crisis triggered by America's recognition of opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader.
Maduro said that during two hushed meetings in New York, his foreign minister invited the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, to come to visit "privately, publicly or secretly."
"If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I'll be there," Maduro said without providing more details. He said both New York meetings lasted several hours.
A senior administration official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly said U.S. officials were willing to meet with "former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans."
Venezuela is plunging deeper into a political chaos triggered by the U.S. demand that Maduro step down a month into a second presidential term that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America consider illegitimate. His opponent, the 35-year-old Guaido, burst onto the political stage in January in the first viable challenge in years to Maduro's hold on power.
As head of Congress, Guaido declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, saying he had a constitutional right to assume presidential powers from the "tyrant" Maduro. He has since garnered broad support, calling massive street protests and winning recognition from the U.S. and dozens of nations in Latin America and Europe who share his goal of removing Maduro.
The escalating crisis is taking place against a backdrop of economic and social turmoil that has led to severe shortages of food and medicine that have forced millions to flee the once-prosperous OPEC nation.
Abrams' appointment as special envoy last month signaled the Trump administration's determination to take a tougher line on Venezuela.
The hawkish former Republican diplomat was a major voice pushing for the ouster of Manuel Noriega in Panama in the 1980s and also was convicted for withholding information from the U.S. Congress during the infamous Iran-Contra affair. He also played a leading role in managing the U.S.'s tepid response to a brief coup that toppled Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.
Two senior Venezuelan officials who were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly said the two encounters between Abrams and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza came at the request of the U.S.
The first one on Jan. 26 they described as hostile, with the U.S. envoy threatening Venezuela with the deployment of troops and chastising the Venezuelan government for allegedly being in league with Cuba, Russia and Hezbollah.
When they met again this week, the atmosphere was less tense, even though the Feb. 11 encounter came four days after Abrams said the "time for dialogue with Maduro had long passed." During that meeting, Abrams insisted that severe U.S. sanctions would oust Maduro even if Venezuela's military stuck by him.
Abrams gave no indication the U.S. was prepared to ease demands Maduro step down. Still, the Venezuelans saw the meetings as a sign there is room for discussion with the Americans despite the tough public rhetoric coming from Washington.
At turns conciliatory and combative, Maduro said all Venezuela needs to rebound is for Trump to remove his "infected hand" from the country that sits atop the world's largest petroleum reserves.
He said U.S. sanctions on the oil industry are to blame for mounting hardships even though shortages and hyperinflation that economists say topped 1 million percent long predates Trump's recent action.
"The infected hand of Donald Trump is hurting Venezuela," Maduro said.
The sanctions effectively ban all oil purchases by the U.S., which had been Venezuela's biggest oil buyer until now. Maduro said he will make up for the sudden drop in revenue by targeting markets in Asia, especially India, where the head of state-run oil giant PDVSA was this week negotiating new oil sales.
"We've been building a path to Asia for many years," he said. "It's a successful route, every year they are buying larger volumes and amounts of oil."
At a petroleum conference in New Delhi, Venezuela's oil minister Manuel Quevedo suggested the country was open to a barter system with India to get around U.S. sanctions.
"We do not have any barter system with Venezuela. Commercial considerations and related factors will determine the value of trade," India's Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in response to the Venezuelan officials' comments.
Maduro also cited the continued support of China and especially Russia, which has been a major supplier of loans, weapons and oil investment over the years. He said that the antagonistic views taken by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin runs the risk of converting the current crisis into a high-risk geopolitical fight between the U.S. and Russia that recalls some of the most-dangerous brinkmanship of the Cold War.
Amid the mounting pressure at home and abroad, Maduro said he won't give up power as a way to defuse the standoff.
He also reiterated a refusal to allow humanitarian aid, calling boxes of U.S.-donated food and pediatric supplies sitting in a warehouse on the border in Colombia mere "crumbs" after the U.S. administration froze billions of dollars in the nation's oil revenue and overseas assets.
"They hang us, steal our money and then say 'here, grab these crumbs' and make a global show out of it," said Maduro.
His comments came hours after British billionaire Richard Branson announced in a video that he'll be hosting a concert in the Colombian border town of Cucuta in hopes of raising $100 million to buy humanitarian supplies for Venezuelans.
"With dignity we say 'No to the global show,'" said Maduro. "Whoever wants to help Venezuela is welcome, but we have enough capacity to pay for everything that we need."
Opponents say the 56-year-old former bus driver has lost touch with his working-class roots, accusing him of ordering mass arrests and starving Venezuelans while he and regime insiders — including the top military brass — line their pockets through corruption.
But Maduro shrugged off the label of "dictator," attributing it to an ideologically driven media campaign by the West to undermine the socialist revolution started by Chavez.
He said he won't resign, seeing his place in history alongside other Latin American leftists from Salvador Allende in Chile to Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala who in decades past had been the target of U.S.-backed coups.
"I'm not afraid," he said, adding that even last year's attack on him with explosives-laden drones during a military ceremony didn't shake his resolve. "I'm only worried about the destiny of the fatherland and of our people, our boys and girls....this is what gives me energy."