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US concerned over Turkey’s drone sales to conflict-hit Ethiopia

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US authorities have taken issue with Turkey over its sales of armed drones to Ethiopia, where two sources familiar with the matter said there was mounting evidence the government had used the weapons against rebel fighters.

Washington has “profound humanitarian concerns” over the sales, which could contravene US restrictions on arms to Addis Ababa, a senior Western official said.

The year-long war between Ethiopia's government and the leadership of the northern Tigray region, among Africa's bloodiest conflicts, has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions.

A State Department spokesman said US Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman “raised reports of armed drone use in Ethiopia and the attendant risk of civilian harm” during a visit to Turkey last week.

A senior Turkish official said Washington conveyed its discomfort at a few meetings, while Ethiopia's military and government did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

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Turkey, which is selling drones to several countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, has dismissed criticism that it plays a destabilizing role in Africa and has said it is in touch with all sides in Ethiopia to urge negotiations.

Last week the United Nations agreed to set up an independent investigation into rights abuses in Ethiopia, a move strongly opposed by its government.

Tigrayan rebel forces said on Monday they were withdrawing from some northern regions after government advances and, in a letter to the UN, called for a no-fly zone for drones and other hostile aircraft over Tigray.

The US State Department clamped down in May on exports of defense products for Ethiopia's armed forces.

In September, the White House authorized sanctions on those engaged, even indirectly, in policies that threaten stability, expand the crisis or disrupt humanitarian assistance there, though there has been no indication of any such imminent action against Turkey.

The US Treasury, which has broad economic sanctions authority under that executive order, declined to comment on whether sanctions could apply to Turkey.

The senior Turkish official said the foreign ministry examined how the drone sales might impact US foreign policy as part of 2022 budget planning.

“The US has conveyed its discomfort with Turkey's drone sales …but Turkey will continue to follow the policies it set in this area,” the person told Reuters.

A second senior Turkish official, from the defense ministry, said Ankara had no intention of meddling in any country's domestic affairs.

Turkish defense exports to Ethiopia surged to almost $95 million in the first 11 months of 2021, from virtually nothing last year, according to Exporters' Assembly data.

Drones in action

Ethiopian government soldiers interviewed by Reuters near Gashena, a hillside town close to the war's front, said a recent government offensive succeeded following an influx of reinforcements and the use of drones and airstrikes to target Tigrayan positions.

A Reuters team spotted destroyed tanks and armored anti-aircraft trucks there.

A foreign military official based in Ethiopia said satellite imagery and other evidence gave “clear indications” that drones were being used, and estimated up to 20 were operating. It was unclear how many might be Turkish-made.

“Surveillance drones are having a greater impact …and being very helpful,” the person said, adding the guerrilla-warfare nature of the conflict made armed drones less useful.

Asked whether foreign countries had also supplied drone operators, the official said: “I know Turkish personnel were here at one point.”

Turkish and Ethiopian officials have not publicly confirmed the drones sale, which Reuters first reported in October, and Turkey's foreign ministry did not respond to a request for further details.

It said last week that US envoy Feltman and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal had discussed developments in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

Turkish expansion

Under President Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has poured military equipment into Africa and the Middle East, including training of armed forces in Somalia, where it has a base.

The Turkish military used its Bayraktar TB2 drones last year with success in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting interest from buyers globally in a market led by US, Chinese and Israeli manufacturers.

In October, a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman said Ethiopia was free to procure drones from anywhere. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that engagement with Africa was based on mutual benefit.

NATO allies Washington and Ankara have strained ties over several issues including the Turkish purchase of Russian missile defenses, and US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

The State Department spokesperson said Feltman had underscored that “now is the time for all outside actors to press for negotiations and end the war” in Ethiopia.

The Western official, who requested anonymity, said Ankara had responded to US concerns by saying it attaches humanitarian provisions to the Ethiopia deal and requires signed undertakings outlining how drones will be used.

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Dubai’s Emirates to restart US flights after suspensions over 5G safety concerns

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UAE-based long-haul carrier Emirates said Thursday it would resume its Boeing 777 flights to the US amid an ongoing dispute over the rollout of new 5G services there.

Emirates said its Boeing 777 service to Chicago, Dallas Fort Worth, Miami, Newark, Orlando and Seattle would resume on January 21.

Flights to Boston, Houston and San Francisco, which saw Emirates deploy its Airbus A380 jumbo jet, will resume Boeing 777 flights on January 22.

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Tim Clark, Emirates president, apologized in a statement but warned that American officials had come up with only a “temporary reprieve” for the situation.

“A long-term resolution would be required,” he said.

Major international airlines rushed to rejig or cancel flights to the United States ahead of a 5G wireless rollout on Wednesday that has triggered safety concerns, despite two wireless carriers saying they will delay parts of the deployment.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had warned that potential 5G interference could affect height readings that play a key role in bad-weather landings on some jets and airlines say the Boeing 777 is among models initially in the spotlight.

Despite an announcement by AT&T and Verizon that they would pause the 5G rollout near airports, several airlines still cancelled flights or switched aircraft models.

Late Tuesday, the FAA began updating its guidance on which airports and aircraft models would be affected, in a move expected to dramatically lessen the impact of the nearly 1,500 notices of 5G restrictions issued by the regulator.

The 777 last year was the second-most used widebody plane on flights to and from US airports with around 210,000 flights, behind only the 767, according to data from FlightRadar24.

Industry sources revealed Boeing had issued technical advisories noting potential interference, but that flight restrictions were in the hands of the FAA, which has for now limited operations at key airports unless airlines qualify for special approvals.

Radio altimeters give precise readings of the height above the ground on approach and help with automated landings, as well as verifying the jet has landed before allowing reverse thrust.

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Nine-member ‘gang’ guilty of money laundering in UAE referred court

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Authorities in the United Arab Emirates have rounded up nine suspects who have been found guilty of laundering funds collected from “theft and fraud operations,” according to a report from official UAE state media WAM.

The UAE Public Prosecution reportedly ordered the defendants to appear in court after the Sharjah Public Prosecution found them targeting workers through an elaborate scheme.

In a statement issued on Wednesday by the Public Prosecution, it said that the “gang of nine suspects” used to issue SIM cards, open bank accounts and obtain ATM cards all under workers’ names.

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The group reportedly ran and managed these accounts through online banking applications, defrauding victims by calling them feigning the identities of bank employees who wanted to update their data or offer the chance to win a monetary prize.

The ruse allowed the nine members to obtain the necessary information, transfer money to other bank accounts they had operated for this purpose, withdraw cash, and then deposit it into accounts belonging to them abroad.

Investigations also revealed that the group of nine forged bank seals.

The Public Prosecution declared in the original statement carried by WAM that it has requested the court to apply the maximum penalty against the accused, in accordance with the provisions of the Federal Decree No. 20 of 2018 on Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism.

This law stipulates that a temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than AED 300,000 ($81,600) and no more than AED 10,000,000 ($2.7 million) be charged to the perpetrators of the crime.

The Public Prosecution confirmed in the statement that necessary legal actions have been taken against the culprits and urged the public to be “cautious and not to cooperate or respond to fraudsters.”

According to a Bloomberg report, the UAE is at “increased risk of being placed on a global watchdog’s list of countries” subject to more oversight for shortcomings in combating money laundering and terrorist financing, even after a recent government push to stamp out illicit transactions.

The Central Bank of UAE established a dedicated department in August 2020 to handle all Anti-Money Laundering and Combatting the Financing of Terrorism matters (AML/CFT), which the Banking Supervision Department handled previously.

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North Korea hints at restarting nuclear, ICBM tests, defying repeated US warnings

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Accusing the United States of hostility and threats, North Korea on Thursday said it will consider restarting “all temporally-suspended activities” it had paused during its diplomacy with the Trump administration, in an apparent threat to resume testing of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong Un presided over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party where officials set policy goals for “immediately bolstering” the North’s military capabilities to counter the Americans’ “hostile moves.”

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Officials gave instructions to “reconsider in an overall scale the trust-building measures that we took on our own initiative … and to promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” the KCNA said.

The North’s Foreign Ministry had already warned of stronger and more explicit action after the Biden administration last week imposed fresh sanctions over the North’s continued missile testing activity. The latest North Korean threat came as the UN Security Council scheduled a closed-door meeting for Thursday to discuss North Korea and non-proliferation matters.

The North has been ramping up its weapons demonstrations recently, including four rounds of missile launches just this month, amid a prolonged freeze in nuclear diplomacy with the United States.

Experts say Kim is reviving Pyongyang’s old playbook of brinkmanship to extract concessions from Washington and neighbors as he grapples with a decaying economy crippled by the pandemic, mismanagement, and US-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions.

Kim announced a unilateral suspension of his nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests in 2018 as he initiated diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump in an attempt to leverage his nukes for badly needed economic benefits.

Their summitry came after a provocative run in North Korean nuclear and intercontinental range ballistic missile testing in 2017 that demonstrated Kim’s pursuit of an arsenal that can viably target the American homeland and resulted in him exchanging threats of nuclear annihilation with Trump.

But negotiations have stalled since the collapse of their second summit in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

At the end of that year, Kim vowed to further bolster his nuclear arsenal in face of “gangster-like” US threats and pressure and declared a “frontal breakthrough” against sanctions while urging his people to stay resilient in a struggle for economic self-reliance.

He then said the North was no longer obligated to maintain its suspension on nuclear and ICBM tests, which Trump touted as a major foreign policy achievement.

However, the pandemic thwarted many of Kim’s economic goals as the North imposed a lockdown and halted most of its trade with China, its major ally and economic lifeline.

North Korea appeared this month to have resumed railroad freight traffic with China that had been suspended for two years.

North Korea conducted its sixth and last test of a nuclear explosive device in September 2017 and its last launch of an ICBM was in November that year.

Some experts say that the North could dramatically raise the ante in weapons demonstrations after the end of February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. They say Pyongyang’s leadership likely feels it would take a dramatic provocation to move the needle with the Biden administration, which has offered open-ended talks but showed no willingness to ease sanctions unless Kim takes real steps to wind down his nuclear and missile program.

“The present US administration persists in maneuvers to deprive the DPRK of its right to self-defense. All the facts clearly prove once again that the hostile policy towards the DPRK will exist in the future, too as long as there is the hostile entity of US imperialism,” the KCNA said in its report about the Politburo meeting, using an abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It said the Politburo members unanimously recognized the need for North Korea to be prepared for a long-term confrontation with the United States and called for practical measures to “more reliably and effectively increase our physical strength for defending dignity, sovereign rights and interests of our state.”

Kim in recent years had showcased some new weapons he may wish to test, including what appeared to be North Korea’s largest-ever ICBM that was rolled out during a military parade in October 2020.

He also issued an ambitious wish list of sophisticated weaponry early last year while setting a five-year plan to develop military forces, which included hypersonic missiles, solid-fuel ICBMs, spy satellites and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

If the North does stage another nuclear test, it may use that event to claim it acquired an ability to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a purported hypersonic missile it tested twice so far this year, experts say.

Last week, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five North Koreans over their roles in obtaining equipment and technology for the North’s missile programs, in its response to North Korea’s earlier tests this month.

The State Department ordered sanctions against another North Korean, a Russian man and a Russian company for their broader support of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction activities. The Biden administration also said it would pursue additional UN sanctions over the North’s continued tests.

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