North Korea marks military anniversary with massive artillery drill

Speculation had mounted that Pyongyang could carry out a sixth nuclear test or another missile launch to mark 85 years since the founding of its army.

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But no such event — which usually happens in the morning — had taken place by noon, and Seoul’s defence ministry said “no unusual development had been detected”.

Instead the South’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed government source saying Pyongyang marked the anniversary with its “largest ever firing drill”, carried out in the eastern port city of Wonsan and presumed to have been overseen by leader Kim Jong-Un.

North Korea has ambitions to build a missile capable of reaching the US mainland and tensions have soared in recent months as it carried out a string of missile tests that sparked tit-for-tat sabre-rattling between it and Washington.

This image made from North Korea’s KRT news on shows the military anniversary celebartions.KRT

Pyongyang’s rhetoric always intensifies in the spring, when Seoul and Washington hold joint military drills it sees as rehearsals for an invasion.

The North’s Rodong Sinmun – the official mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea – warned Tuesday of dire consequences in the event of a US-led pre-emptive strike.

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It promised “the most brutal punishment… in the sky and land as well as at sea and from underwater without any warning or prior notice”.

Watch: North Koreans mark the military anniversary

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North Korea launched two missile tests this month while US President Donald Trump and his senior aides have warned that “all options are on the table” against Pyongyang, including military action.

WATCH: North Korea denounces US for UN meeting

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Trump on Monday urged the UN Security Council to consider stronger sanctions against Pyongyang, and US senators will be briefed on North Korea at the White House on Wednesday.

Washington has sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Korean peninsula, where it is expected to arrive — after a derision-provoking delay — later this week.

Watch: Trump says UN must ready new sanctions for North Korea

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The vessel will take part in joint naval drills with the South’s forces to “demonstrate Seoul and Washington’s strong determination to punish North Korean provocations”, the South Korean Navy said in a statement.

They will take place in the East Sea, the South’s name for the Sea of Japan, it said, and the two allies will also begin joint naval exercises in the West Sea on Tuesday “in relation to the current security situation”.

The nuclear-powered US submarine USS Michigan also made a port call to the South’s Busan on Tuesday in another show of force.

Trump has said the US was sending an “armada” to the Korean peninsula, including submarines.

Watch: Bishop says North Korea is a threat

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The USS Michigan is built to carry submarine-launched ballistic missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of making precision strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities, Yonhap said.

But the South Korean Navy called the vessel’s visit “routine”, adding it would not take part in any joint exercises.

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US sets up missile defence in South Korea amid tensions

In a defiant bit of timing, South Korea has announced that key parts of a contentious US missile defence system have been installed a day after rival North Korea showed off its military power.

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The South’s trumpeting of progress on setting up the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, comes as high-powered US military assets converge on the Korean Peninsula and as a combative North Korea signals possible nuclear and missile testing.

North Korea conducted live-fire artillery drills on Tuesday, the 85th anniversary of the founding of its million-person strong Korean People’s Army.

On the same day, a US guided-missile submarine docked in South Korea, and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier is headed toward the peninsula for a joint exercise with South Korea.

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The moves to set up THAAD within this year have angered not only North Korea, but also China, the country that the Trump administration hopes to work with to rid the North of nuclear weapons.

China, which has grown increasingly frustrated with its ally Pyongyang, and Russia see the system’s powerful radars as a security threat.

South Korea said in a statement on Wednesday that unspecified parts of THAAD were installed and Yonhap news agency reported the parts include two or three launchers, intercept missiles and at least one radar.

The statement said that Seoul and Washington have been pushing to get THAAD quickly working to cope with North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threats.

On Tuesday, North Korea conducted live-fire drills near the east coast city of Wonsan that involved 300 to 400 artillery pieces, Yonhap reported. An official from Seoul’s Defence Ministry couldn’t confirm those specific details.

North Korea’s official media said early Wednesday that leader Kim Jong Un personally observed the exercises.

The drills reportedly included submarine torpedo attacks on mock enemy warships “while fighters and bombers made zero feet flight above the sea to drop bombs on the targets,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

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President Donald Trump has sent more US military assets to the region in a show of force while leaning on China to exert economic pressure on its wayward ally.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke to Trump on Monday, is urging restraint from both Pyongyang and Washington where top administration officials are due to brief the entire US Senate on Wednesday.

How a two-week army crackdown reignited Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis

At dawn the next morning soldiers encircled and then entered the village.

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Rahim and his mother crept into a rice field. Crouching, Rahim said they saw the soldiers set fire to homes and shoot fleeing villagers.

“I thought we were going to die that day,” said Rahim, who like many Rohingya identifies by a single name. “We kept hearing gunshots. I saw several people shot dead.”

His account, told in a Bangladesh refugee camp where thousands of Rohingya are sheltering, was corroborated by four people from his village.

The attack on Rahim’s village, Dar Gyi Zar, on Nov. 12-13, claimed dozens of lives, Rohingya elders said. The killings marked the start of a two-week military onslaught across about 10 Rohingya villages in northwest Rakhine State, a Reuters reconstruction of events has found.

Rohingya elders estimate some 600 people were killed. A United Nations report from February said the likely toll was hundreds. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed, Human Rights Watch satellite imagery shows. Countless women were raped, eyewitnesses and aid workers said. Doctors in Bangladesh told Reuters they treated women who had been raped.

It was the latest round of ethnic bloodletting in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country where the roughly one million Muslim Rohingya are marginalised, often living in camps, denied access to healthcare and education and uprooted and killed in pogroms.

Myanmar’s march to democracy, beginning in 2011, uncorked long-suppressed ethnic and religious tensions between Rakhine’s Buddhists and the Rohingya. Clashes between the two communities in 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000, mostly Rohingya.

This latest eruption of violence drove some 75,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, the United Nations said. Myanmar’s government has conceded some soldiers may have committed crimes but has rejected charges of “ethnic cleansing.” It has promised to prosecute any officers where there is evidence of wrongdoing.

Noor Jahan, 35, a Muslim Rohingya woman, stands outside her shelter at Thet Kel Pyin, an internally displaced person camp, in Rakhine State, 9 March 2017. EPA

The military assault involving a little under 2,000 soldiers has presented Aung San Suu Kyi with the first major crisis since her party won elections in late 2015. Many hoped Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, would bring a new era of tolerance after five decades of military rule. While generals remain in control of a significant part of the government, she now faces accusations of failing to oppose human rights abuses.

Suu Kyi’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said some individuals may have committed abuses “in the heat of the confrontation.” But he stressed the government did not approve of such conduct. Suu Kyi did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Rakhine.

The army began its “clearance operation” in Rakhine after Rohingya militants attacked border posts there on Oct. 9. For a month, it tried to pressure villagers to hand over the rebels, without success. That approach changed on Nov. 12-13 in Dar Gyi Zar and the neighbouring village Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, marking a sharp escalation of the military operation.

This article pieces together how events unfolded, drawing on interviews with Rohingya refugees, diplomats, aid workers and Myanmar government officials. Reuters also gained rare access to Myanmar security officials and spoke with a Rohingya militant leader.

The reconstruction of the military operation contains previously unreported details about army negotiations with villagers over the insurgents, a shift in military strategy and the army units involved. Reuters also learned new details about investigations into alleged atrocities that are being conducted by Myanmar’s army and by the home affairs ministry.

The violence was brutal. A 16-year-old girl assaulted in the village of Kyar Gaung Taung, said two soldiers raped her. Speaking in a Bangladesh refugee camp, she said she still suffers anxiety and trauma after the attack.

“I am angry with myself for being Rohingya,” said the teen, whose name Reuters is withholding. “If I had been Bangladeshi or American, I would never have been raped. But they did it to me because I was born Rohingya.”

Watch: Shocking images show the aftermath of an army operation against Rohingya Muslims

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The army has denied there were widespread abuses and said it was carrying out a legitimate counterinsurgency operation. The army and the ministry of home affairs did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Rakhine.

“It is possible that individual security officers or individual policemen may have reacted in an excessive manner,” Thaung Tun, the security adviser, said. “But what we want to make clear is that it’s not the policy of the government to condone these excesses.”

Clearance

After years of persecution, some Rohingya have begun to fight back. A militant group called Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement”, was formed by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia after the 2012 violence, according to the International Crisis Group. Its leader, Ata Ullah, said hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the ranks of the group, which now wants to be known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Myanmar’s government estimates it has about 400 fighters.

“In 2012, they killed us and we understood at that time, they would not give us our rights,” said Ata Ullah, speaking by video link from an undisclosed location in Myanmar.

Before dawn on Oct. 9, Rohingya militants staged attacks on border police. The army set about trying to capture the rebels. For a month, it attempted to pressure villagers to give up the insurgents, according to Rohingya elders and villagers.

The village of Kyet Yoe Pyin, located on the main road north to Bangladesh in northwest Rakhine, was one of the first to draw the army’s attention on Oct. 13, according to a military intelligence source.

Insurgents had used logs to erect roadblocks near the settlement of 1,300 houses, blocking the way for military vehicles, residents and the military intelligence source said. In retaliation, about 400 soldiers burned down a part of Kyet Yoe Pyin and shot several people, according to four villagers.

Officials have blamed insurgents and villagers themselves for the burning of homes.

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After a few days of trying unsuccessfully to capture the insurgents, the soldiers asked village elders to negotiate. The meeting took place in western Kyet Yoe Pyin.

About 300 soldiers crowded the road while four commanders led the talks with five Rohingya men, according to a village elder who attended the meeting. The talks, confirmed by the military intelligence source, were an example of the army’s attempts in those early weeks to pressure the villagers to help identify the rebels.

“Their first question was: ‘Who cut the trees?’ We told them we didn’t know,” the village elder recounted. “They told us: ‘We will give you a chance: You can either give us the names of the insurgents, or we will kill you’.”

The officers visited Kyet Yoe Pyin on several further occasions, asking about insurgents and taking money in exchange for leaving the remaining houses untouched, the villagers said. A variation of this scene was repeated in other villages in the weeks leading up to Nov. 12, residents said.

Two weeks

On Nov. 12, this low-grade violence escalated abruptly when the army clashed with rebels north of two villages in northwestern Rakhine – Rahim’s village Dar Gyi Zar, a settlement of more than 400 houses, and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, with some 600 houses.

Muhammad Ismail, another Rohingya teacher from Dar Gyi Zar, said the army spotted insurgents a few kilometres to the north of his village at around 4 a.m. After a two-hour shootout, the militants fled towards neighbouring Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, where fighting resumed in the afternoon. The area is densely forested, and residents could not say how many militants there were.

The leader of the insurgents, Ata Ullah, said he and his men found themselves surrounded. “We had to fight,” he told Reuters. He did not say how many insurgents were involved in the clash.

During a day-long battle, some villagers joined the insurgents, fighting the security forces with knives and sticks, according to Ata Ullah and the military. A senior officer was killed and the army brought in two helicopters mounted with guns as back-up, according to official accounts, which described the incident as an ambush by the insurgents.

The helicopters swooped in around 4 p.m., hovering low over the road connecting Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, according to eyewitnesses. The villagers dispersed in panic as one of the helicopters sprayed the insurgents with bullets. The other helicopter fired indiscriminately on those fleeing, five eyewitnesses said. The military intelligence source confirmed that the helicopters dispersed the crowd but denied they shot at civilians.

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It marked the start of an offensive across a section of northwest Rakhine that lasted about two weeks, according to villagers, aid workers and human rights monitors and a review of satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Security and administrative officials confirmed the scope of the sweep but said they were not aware of abuses.

Whole communities fled north towards larger villages and then west to Bangladesh, pursued by the army. Women who were raped said the soldiers shouted “go to Bangladesh.”

Three doctors from small clinics near refugee camps in Bangladesh have described treating some three dozen cases of Rohingya women whom they say were raped.

“I treated one woman. She was so badly raped she had lost sensation in her lower limbs,” said John Sarkar, 40, a Bangladeshi doctor who has worked with Rohingya refugees for eight years.

National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said a commission, set up by Suu Kyi in December and chaired by vice president Myint Swe, a former head of military intelligence, needed time to investigate.

“We find it really difficult to believe that the Myanmar military would use (sexual violence) as a tool, sex slaves or rape as a weapon. In Myanmar this is repulsive, it’s not acceptable,” he said.

The Suu Kyi appointed investigation is one of several. The army is conducting an internal probe and the ministry of home affairs, which is controlled by the army, is also carrying out an inquiry. Separately, the United Nations has ordered a fact-finding mission to examine allegations of human rights abuses.

A senior government source and a senior military source said the commander of the army division that led the operation, Major General Khin Maung Soe, had been questioned by investigators in the army probe. The army did not respond to Reuters questions about Khin Maung Soe’s role and Reuters was unable to contact him directly.

The ministry of home affairs, meanwhile, is examining 21 cases, including five suspected murders, six rapes, two cases of looting and one case of arson and seven unexplained deaths, according to police colonel Shwe Thaung. Investigators were seeking the army’s cooperation to interrogate soldiers.

Left behind

When the sun went down on the villages of Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son on Nov. 12, the fighting stopped. “The night was tense. Some people sneaked out to neighbouring villages. Others were preparing to move first thing in the morning,” said Muhammad Ismail, the Rohingya teacher who witnessed fighting.

But at dawn the next day, soldiers encircled the two villages and set the houses on fire, five eyewitnesses said. Those who could, fled. But the elderly and the infirm stayed. From the rice field where he hid, Rahim said he saw soldiers shooting indiscriminately.

Police reports from the period confirm that security forces focused their attention on about 10 villages – Dar Gyi Zar, Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son and other settlements nearby. They detained nearly 400 people between Nov. 12 and 30, according to a senior administrator in the state capital of Sittwe who received the daily dispatches.

The administrator, who briefed Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the reports described a lawful counterinsurgency operation.

A family at the Thet Kel Pyin Muslim internally displaced person camp near Sittwe of Rakhine capital, western Myanmar, 10 March 2017. EPA

One of the villages that bore the brunt of the post-Nov. 12 crackdown was Kyar Gaung Taung, a settlement of about 300 houses in northwest Rakhine.

Residents say that for five days starting around Nov. 16, security forces swooped in, searching for men. As in neighbouring villages, they arrested or killed most working-age men, and gathered the women in groups, carrying out invasive body searches.

Reuters talked to 17 people from Kyar Gaung Taung from November through March by telephone and in person in Bangladeshi camps, including five rape victims, three close relatives of those raped and several village elders. They corroborated one another’s accounts.

Shamshida, a 30-year-old mother of six, was ordered to come out of her house.

“One of the soldiers put a machete to my chest and bit me on the back. Then, they started picking women from the group gathered on the road. I was selected and pulled inside the house. I knelt down thinking that may help and the last thing I remember was one of the soldiers kicking me in the head,” said Shamshida, who identifies with a single name.

When her husband and her sister found her several hours later, she was stripped naked, unconscious, covered in bruises and bleeding from her mouth and her vagina.

They carried her to the neighbouring village of U Shey Kya several hundred metres away, where she regained consciousness, was showered and taken care of by a village doctor.

After eight days, she returned to her village, where there were no men left and many houses were burned down.

Doctors in Bangladesh said the Rohingya women they treated had torn vaginal tissue and scars inside their mouths from having guns inserted. In some cases, the women couldn’t walk and had to be carried by relatives to the clinics. Many were covered in bruises and bite marks.

Sarkar, the Bangladeshi doctor, and others administered abortion-inducing kits, painkillers and antibiotics. In cases where the kits didn’t work, they referred the women to regional hospitals for abortions.

Out of the country

As thousands of Rohingya were fleeing across the river border to Bangladesh, Suu Kyi was not in the country. In early December she went to Singapore, attending meetings and a ceremony to have a purple orchid named after her in the city-state’s botanic gardens.

Suu Kyi’s defenders, including some Western diplomats, say she is hamstrung by a military-drafted constitution that left the army in control of key security ministries and much of the apparatus of the state. Suu Kyi may be playing a long game, these diplomats said – back the military for now and coax the generals into accepting a rewriting of the constitution to reduce their power.

During her trip, Suu Kyi gave an interview to state broadcaster Channel News Asia, in which she accused the international community of “always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” adding it didn’t help “if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation.” She appealed for understanding of her nation’s ethnic complexities, and said the world should not forget that the military operation was launched in response to the Rohingya insurgents’ attacks on border posts.

Rahim, the village schoolteacher, and his family were among thousands of Rohingya who made the 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) river crossing to Bangladesh.

On April 8, in a Bangladesh refugee camp, Rahim’s wife Rasheda gave birth to their first boy, Futu, or “little son.” Rahim doesn’t know whether Futu will ever see his homeland.

Trump slams ruling on ‘sanctuary cities’

President Donald Trump has attacked a federal judge’s ruling that blocked his executive order seeking to withhold funds from “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants, vowing to appeal it to the US Supreme Court.

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Tuesday’s ruling by US District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco was the latest blow to Trump’s efforts to toughen immigration enforcement. Federal courts have also blocked his two travel bans on citizens of mostly Muslim nations.

“First the Ninth Circuit rules against the ban & now it hits again on sanctuary cities-both ridiculous rulings. See you in the Supreme Court!” Trump said in a tweet, referring to the San Francisco-based federal appeals court and its judicial district.

The Trump administration has targeted sanctuary cities, which generally offer safe harbour to illegal immigrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Critics say authorities endanger public safety when they decline to hand over for deportation illegal immigrants arrested for crimes, while supporters argue that enlisting police co-operation to round up immigrants for removal undermines trust in local police, particularly among Latinos.

Dozens of local governments and cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, have joined the “sanctuary” movement.

In his ruling, Orrick said Trump’s January 25 order targeted broad categories of federal funding for the sanctuary cities and that plaintiffs challenging it were likely to succeed in proving it unconstitutional.

An appeal is likely to be heard by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals before it goes to the Supreme Court. Republicans view the appeals court as biased toward liberals, and Trump was quick to attack its reputation in his tweets.

It “has a terrible record of being overturned (close to 80 per cent). They used to call this “judge shopping!” Messy system,” he wrote.

The appeals court raised Trump’s ire earlier this year when it upheld a Seattle judge’s decision to block the Republican president’s first travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations.

In May, the court will hear an appeal of a Hawaii judge’s order blocking Trump’s revised travel ban, which placed restrictions on citizens from six mostly Muslim countries. A Maryland judge also blocked portions of the second ban.

Restrictions to be imposed on gas exports

Export restrictions will be placed on gas companies as the Turnbull government further tightens the screws on industry chiefs to guarantee domestic supply.

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The prime minister said a domestic gas shortage had triggered a dramatic cost hike, and it was time prices in Australia “fairly reflect international export prices as they should”.

“Australians are entitled to have access to the gas they need at prices they can afford. Thousands of jobs depend on secure, reliable and affordable gas,” he said.

The new powers, to be announced on Thursday, will allow the government to impose export controls based on advice about Australia’s forecast needs from the market operator and regulator.

Exporters who take more from the Australian market than they put in will be forced to explain how they will fill the shortfall of domestic gas.

Mr Turnbull said the government would not prescribe how exporters respond, “giving companies considerable flexibility in finding commercial solutions”.

The latest measure comes after Mr Turnbull twice hauled gas chiefs to Canberra to press them on action to end a supply crisis in Australia.

The government sought commitments from the industry that each east coast LNG exporter would put more gas into the domestic market than they took out.

“While good progress has been made, those requirements have not been met,” Mr Turnbull said.

“It is unacceptable for Australia to become the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, but not have enough domestic supply for Australian households and businesses.”

Mr Turnbull again argued gas companies operated with a social licence from Australians.

“They cannot expect to maintain that licence if Australians are short-changed because of excessive exports,” he said.

“The government remains committed to LNG exports but not at the expense of Australian interests.”

Mr Turnbull said the “targeted, temporary” restrictions were expected to apply only to east coast exporters and would comply with Australia’s international obligations.

Consultation with industry will take place before the regulations take effect on July 1.

The export restrictions are the third measure announced in response to the gas crisis. The consumer watchdog has been told to investigate the entire gas supply chain, and the government has committed to pursuing a range of pipeline and gas market reforms.