North Korea Warns of War After Exchange of Fire With South

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday declared his frontline troops in a “quasi-state of war” and ordered them to prepare for battle a day after the most serious confrontation between the rivals in years.

South Korea’s military on Thursday fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response to what Seoul said were North Korean artillery strikes meant to back up a threat to attack loudspeakers broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda.

The North’s declaration Friday is similar to its other warlike rhetoric in recent years, including repeated threats to reduce Seoul to a “sea of fire,” and the huge numbers of soldiers and military equipment already stationed along the border mean the area is always essentially in a “quasi-state of war.” Still, the North’s apparent willingness to test Seoul with military strikes and its recent warning of further action raise worries because South Korea has vowed to hit back with overwhelming strength should North Korea attack again.

Pyongyang says it did not fire anything at the South, a claim Seoul dismissed as nonsense.

Kim Jong Un ordered his troops to “enter a wartime state” and be fully ready for any military operations starting Friday evening, according to a report in Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. The North has also given Seoul a deadline of Saturday evening to remove border loudspeakers that, after a lull of 11 years, have started broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Failure, Pyongyang says, will result in further military action. Seoul has vowed to continue the broadcasts.

The North’s media report said that “military commanders were urgently dispatched for operations to attack South Korean psychological warfare facilities if the South doesn’t stop operating them.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing an unidentified government source, reported Friday that South Korean and U.S. surveillance assets detected the movement of vehicles carrying short-range Scud and medium-range Rodong missiles in a possible preparation for launches. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it could not confirm the report.

North Korea said the South Korean shells fired Thursday landed near four military posts but caused no injuries. No one was reported injured in the South, either, though hundreds were evacuated from frontline towns.

The loudspeaker broadcasts began after South Korea accused the North of planting land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers earlier this month. North Korea denies this, too.

Authoritarian North Korea, which has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts, is extremely sensitive to any criticism of the government run by leader Kim Jong Un, whose family has ruled since the North was founded in 1948. The loudspeaker broadcasts are taken seriously in Pyongyang because the government does not want its soldiers and residents to hear outsiders criticize what they call world-leading human rights abuse and economic mismanagement that condemns many to abject poverty, South Korean analysts say.

North Korea on Thursday afternoon first fired a single round believed to be from an anti-aircraft gun, which landed near a South Korean border town, Seoul said. About 20 minutes later, three North Korean artillery shells fell on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. South Korea responded with dozens of 155-milimeter artillery rounds, according to South Korean defense officials.

7 die, 31 survive as two planes crash in mid-air

Over western Slovakia, killing seven people, officials said.

Two planes carrying dozens of parachutists collided in mid-air on Thursday over western Slovakia, killing seven people, officials said. Thirty-one others on board survived by jumping out with their parachutes.

The crash took place on Thursday morning near the village of Cerveny Kamen, said Zuzana Farkasova, a spokeswoman for the Slovak fire-fighters.

Rescue workers used helicopters to reach the forested crash site in the White Carpathians mountain range that forms the border with the Czech Republic.

The two Czech-made L-410 transport planes collided at an altitude of 1,500 meters, said Juraj Denes, an official with the Slovak Air and Naval Investigations Bureau, a government agency that investigates plane crashes.

Peter Bubla, spokesman for the Health Ministry, said 38 people were on board the two planes and 31 survived. Five people needed some medical treatment but nobody was hospitalised, he said.

Some on board jumped out even after the planes collided, according to Interior Minister Robert Kalinak. “The 31 parachutists managed to jump out from the falling planes and survived,” Mr. Kalinak told the TA3 news television station as he visited the crash site. “They all landed safely. It’s a small miracle.”

The dead included the two crew members from both planes and three parachutists, Juraj Gyenes, another official at the aviation investigations agency, told TA3. TA3 reported the parachutists were training for this weekend’s air show in nearby Slavnica. “All of a sudden, I heard a big blow,” one witness told TASR, the Slovak news agency, in a news video. “Then it roared. I thought some pieces were falling, but it could be the parachutists.”

Kalinak and Slovak Health Minister Viliam Cislak visited the crash site, where wreckage from the planes smouldered among the dense mountain forest.

Obama’s Democrats face intense pressure as they weigh Iran deal

As he weighed whether to support President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Representative Donald Norcross was showered with the sort of attention rarely shown to junior members of the U.S. Congress.

WASHINGTON: As he weighed whether to support President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Representative Donald Norcross was showered with the sort of attention rarely shown to junior members of the U.S. Congress.

The New Jersey Democrat, a former labour union leader, met with Obama and other Democrats twice in the White House. He listened to briefings by Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and senior Defense Department officials.

He took an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent two hours with him and 21 other Democratic lawmakers, picking out faults in the agreement that Israel opposes. Voters from Norcross’s south New Jersey district flooded his office with phone calls and emails and buttonholed him in person.

On Tuesday, Norcross said he would oppose the deal on the grounds that it does not go far enough to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. All the attempts at persuasion gave him the information he needed to make up his mind, he said, adding that the politics of the debate weren’t a factor.

“People really know at a gut level that if anybody tries to bring politics into it, (that’s) way off base,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

As the minority party, Norcross and his fellow Democrats are often sidelined on Capitol Hill. But over the past month they have been the targets of a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign as they weigh one of the most consequential foreign-policy decisions in years.

The intense pressure appears to have made the outcome of next month’s votes on the deal closer than expected as some Democrats are persuaded to break ranks with Obama.

Congress, where majority Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the deal, is expected to reject the pact next month. But Obama will still be able to save the agreement if he can deny opponents in either house the two-thirds majority needed to override his expected veto.

The fate of the deal now hinges on the votes of the 18 Democratic senators and roughly 100 Democratic House members who have yet to say how they will vote.

The U.S.-led international agreement reached in July would put new limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions on the country.

On one side of the lobbying effort are progressive groups who back Obama’s view that the deal is the best chance to avoid another Middle East war. On the other side, with a larger war chest, are many Jewish-American groups that say the deal has dangerous loopholes and fear it will empower Iran and ultimately leave Israel vulnerable to nuclear attack.

Norcross came out against the deal at a synagogue in his district, where he was joined on stage by an Israeli official and a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel group that opposes the pact.

Many members of that congregation who normally support Obama oppose him on this issue, according to its leader.

“This is a chasm that can’t be bridged,” said Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.


White House officials privately expect they will be able to round up the 146 votes needed in the House to keep the deal alive, and are cautiously confident about the Senate as well.

In the Senate, 26 of the chamber’s 44 Democrats have said they support the deal and two have said they will oppose it, according to a Reuters tally.

That means opponents of the deal need to win over at least 11 of the 18 senators who remain undecided.

“I would say we have a fighting chance,” said former Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is making calls while recovering from knee surgery on behalf of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an interest group that opposes the deal.

“It’s not out of reach, but we’re not kidding ourselves,” Lieberman told Reuters.

Democrats still on the fence face intense public pressure.

Lieberman’s group, which is funded by AIPAC, plans to spend up to US$40 million in its campaign to kill the deal. The group has run TV ads in at least 23 states, according to public filings compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group.

It has taken out billboards in New York’s Times Square praising Charles Schumer – the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat – for opposing the deal and chastising Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for backing it.

Another AIPAC affiliate paid for Norcross’s trip to Israel earlier this month, which was planned before the deal was complete. Most of the other 21 Democratic House members on the trip have yet to announce their position on the deal.

Secure America Now, another advocacy group that opposes the deal, has bought ads on the messaging service Snapchat to sway Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. The group’s supporters have generated 2,400 calls to his office and 3,500 calls to his top staffer, according to spokesman Vincent Harris.

The group has also used Twitter to target undecided members like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

“I have never had my cell phone blow up and my email account blow up as much as it is now,” Booker said on a conference call with Jewish-American groups on Thursday.

J Street, a liberal Jewish-American group that backs the deal, is running TV ads in nine states and has enlisted former Israeli security officials to speak to undecided Democrats.

CREDO Action, another liberal group that backs the deal, says its members have placed 49,000 phone calls and organised dozens of meetings with lawmakers and staff.

Norcross’s decision to oppose the deal has given new ammunition to Alex Law, a progressive Democrat who is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat him in the 2016 primary election.

“He should be supporting our president,” Law told Reuters.

Norcross said even a personal appeal from the president probably wouldn’t have changed his mind.

“What bit of information that I don’t have already could he have brought to light?” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Stuart Grudgings)


Israel responds to Syria rocket fire with artillery, air strikes

Israel launched artillery and air strikes against Syrian army positions in the Golan Heights on Thursday night in response to rocket fire, military sources said.

South Korea fires shells into North Korea after rocket attack

Seoul, South Korea: South Korean artillery units fired dozens of shells into North Korea on Thursday in response to a rocket fired over the heavily-militarised frontier, as both sides pushed already elevated cross-border tensions to dangerously high levels.

North Korea followed up with an ultimatum sent via military hotline that gave the South 48 hours to dismantle loudspeakers blasting propaganda messages across the border or face further military action.

The message, issued by the Korean People’s Army general staff, stipulated that the 48-hour period would expire at 5.00 pm (0800) on Saturday.

Direct exchanges of fire across the inter-Korean land border are extremely rare, mainly, analysts say, because both sides recognise the risk for a sudden and potentially disastrous escalation between two countries that technically remain at war.

Thursday’s incident came amid heightened tensions following mine blasts that maimed two members of a South Korean border patrol earlier this month and the launch this week of a major South Korea-US military exercise that infuriated Pyongyang.

A defence ministry spokesman said South Korea had detected a rocket fired from the North Korean side across a western section of the border shortly before 4.00 pm (0700 GMT).

The South’s Yonhap news agency said the rocket landed in a mountainous area not far from a South Korean military base in Yeoncheon county — some 60 kilometres north of Seoul.

There were no casualties or damage.

South Korean military units retaliated by launching “dozens of rounds of 155mm shells” targeting the rocket launch site, the defence ministry said in a statement.

“We have strengthened our military readiness and are closely watching movements of the North’s military,” it added.

The spokesman said South Korean troops had been placed on highest-level alert, while President Park Geun-Hye chaired an emergency meeting of her National Security Council and ordered a “stern response” to any further provocations.

Local residents evacuated

A local government official in Yeoncheon county told AFP that residents of several border villages had been ordered to evacuate their homes for nearby shelters.

Dan Pinkston, Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul, said the motive for the initial North Korean rocket firing was unclear.

“It could always have been an error, but more likely it was the show of displeasure that the North has been threatening for a while now,” Pinkston said.

The incident will fuel tensions that have been on high simmer in recent weeks following the border landmine incident.

Seoul said the mines were placed by North Korea and responded by resuming high-decibel propaganda broadcasts across the border, using loudspeakers that had lain silent for more than a decade.

The North denied any role and threatened “indiscriminate” shelling of the loudspeaker units — a threat it reiterated in the ultimatum sent by military hotline on Thursday.

It had also vowed retaliatory strikes after Seoul and Washington refused to call off their annual Ulchi Freedom military drill, which kicked off Monday and roleplays responses to an invasion by the nuclear-armed North.

North Korea regularly ups its bellicose rhetoric before and during the annual joint exercises, but rarely follows through on its threats.

In the past, its default response has been to test fire missiles into the East Sea (Sea of Japan).

Risk of escalation

“Sending a rocket over the border is surprising, because the inherent risks are just so big,” Pinkston said.

“If it had hit something strategic or caused any casualties, the South’s response would have been far stronger, and then suddenly we’re on the path towards a serious confrontation,” he added.

The last direct attack on the South was in November 2010 when North Korea shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong, killing two civilians and two soldiers.

On that occasion, South Korea responded by shelling North Korean positions, triggering brief fears of a full-scale conflict.

In October last year, North Korea border guards attempted to shoot down some helium balloons launched across the land border by activists and carrying thousands of anti-North leaflets.

The incident triggered a brief exchange of heavy machine-gun fire and scuppered a planned resumption of high-level talks.


Pakistan bans film on Mumbai attacks after accused mastermind protests

LAHORE, Pakistan A Pakistani court on Thursday banned an Indian film about the 2008 Mumbai attacks in response to a petition filed by the man New Delhi accuses of masterminding the killing of 166 people over three days.

Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba which the United Nations has listed as a terrorist organisation, petitioned the court to ban the Kabir Khan-directed feature film “Phantom” on the basis that it maligns Pakistan and vilifies Saeed and his current organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The Lahore High Court issued a ban on Thursday, Saeed’s lawyer said.

“The government has been told that the film should not be presented for showing in Pakistan and to take necessary steps in this regard,” lawyer AK Dogar told Reuters.

In its reply to the petition in court, the Pakistani government “vehemently denied” that there were ever any plans to screen the Indian film.

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is banned in Pakistan but tolerated unofficially. Saeed has long abandoned its leadership and is now the head of its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

India says it has handed over evidence against him to Pakistan which should have detained him. The issue has stood in the way of rebuilding relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

The United States has also offered $10 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Saeed, who denies any involvement in the Mumbai attacks.

Saeed lives freely in the city of Lahore in a villa with police stationed outside.

“Phantom” is described as a political thriller set in aftermath of the Mumbai attacks and features Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif opposing a villain named “Harif Saeed”.

Yahya Mujahid, spokesperson for Hafiz Saeed and Jamaat-ud-Daw, applauded Thursday’s court ruling.

“This film was calling for an attack on Hafiz Saeed, and this was clearly terrorism on the part of India, to release such propaganda. So we think the High Court has given a very good decision on this.”

This story has not been edited by staff.

Bangkok: Tourists among 21 killed in blast outside Brahma temple

At least 21 people, including many foreign tourists, were killed on Monday evening when a powerful bomb planted on a motorcycle exploded outside a hugely popular Lord Brahma temple in the Thai capital, scattering body parts and debris.

The explosion outside the Erawan shrine in the crowded business district of Chidlom also injured at least 100 people, most of them tourists from China and Taiwan. Some reports of 27 casualties were denied by officials.

“The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters.

“It was like a meat market,” said Marko Cunningham, a paramedic, adding the blast had left a two-metre-wide crater. “There were bodies everywhere. Some were shredded. There were legs where heads were supposed to be. It was horrific.”

The shrine is a major attraction, especially for visitors from China. Thousands of Buddhist devotees also visit it every day.