- Created on 20 December 2012
(AP) — South Africa's president says Nelson Mandela has steadily improved over the last few days after being diagnosed with a lung infection and undergoing gallstone surgery.
President Jacob Zuma said Thursday that the 94-year-old Mandela's condition had been serious but that the anti-apartheid icon had responded well to treatment.
Mandela was admitted Dec. 8 to a hospital in the capital, Pretoria.
Mandela was a leader of the struggle against racist white rule in South Africa, serving 27 years in prison for his beliefs.
He served one five-year term as president before retiring from public life.
- Created on 19 December 2012
(AP) — The leaders of an independent panel that blamed systematic State Department management and leadership failures for gross security lapses in the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya will explain their findings to Congress on Wednesday.
The two most senior members of the Accountability Review Board are set to testify behind closed doors before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees on the classified findings of their harshly critical report.
An unclassified version released late Tuesday said serious bureaucratic mismanagement was responsible for the inadequate security at the mission in Benghazi where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
"Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the panel said.
Despite those deficiencies, the board determined that no individual officials ignored or violated their duties and recommended no disciplinary action. But it also said poor performance by senior managers should be grounds for disciplinary recommendations in the future.
Wednesday's classified testimony from the review board — retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen — will set the stage for open hearings the next day with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who is in charge of policy, and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, who is in charge of management.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to have appeared at Thursday's hearing but canceled after fainting and sustaining a concussion last week while recovering from a stomach virus that dehydrated her. Clinton is under doctors' orders to rest.
In a letter that accompanied the transmission of the report to Capitol Hill, Clinton thanked the board for its "clear-eyed, serious look at serious systemic challenges" and said she accepted all of its 29 recommendations to improve security at high-threat embassies and consulates.
She said the department had already begun to implement some of the recommendations. They include increasing by several hundred the number of Marine guards stationed at diplomatic missions throughout the world; relying less on local security forces for protection at embassies, consulates and other offices; and increasing hiring and deployment of highly trained Diplomatic Security agents at at-risk posts.
Clinton agreed with the panel's finding that Congress must fully fund the State Department's security initiatives. The panel found that budget constraints in the past had led some management officials to emphasize savings over security, including rejecting numerous requests from the Benghazi mission and the embassy in Tripoli for enhanced protection.
It singled out the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near East Affairs for criticism, saying there appeared to be a lack of cooperation and confusion over protection at the mission in Benghazi, a city in Eastern Libya that was relatively lawless after the revolution that toppled Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
But it appeared to break little new ground about the timeline of the Benghazi attack during which Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, information specialist Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods — who were contractors working for the CIA — were killed. Stevens' slaying was the first of a U.S. ambassador since 1988.
The board determined that there had been no immediate, specific tactical warning of a potential attack on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. However, the report said there had been several worrisome incidents in the run-up to the attack that should have set off warning bells.
It did confirm, though, that contrary to initial accounts, there was no protest outside the consulate. It said responsibility for the incident rested entirely with the terrorists who attacked the mission.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, administration officials linked the attack to the spreading protests that had begun in Cairo earlier that day over an American-made, anti-Islamic film. Those comments came after evidence already pointed to a distinct militant attack.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on numerous TV talk shows the Sunday after the attack and used the administration talking points linking it to the film. An ensuing brouhaha in the heat of the presidential campaign eventually led her to withdraw her name from consideration to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state in President Barack Obama's second term.
While criticizing State Department management in Washington along with the local militia force and contract guards that the mission depended on for protection, the report said U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi "performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues in a near-impossible situation."
It said the response by Diplomatic Security agents on the scene and CIA operatives at a nearby compound that later came under attack itself had been "timely and appropriate" and absolved the military from any blame. "There was simply not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," it said.
The report also discounted speculation that officials in Washington had refused appeals for additional help after the attack had begun.
"The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders," it said. To the contrary, the report said the evacuation of the dead and wounded 12 hours after the initial attack was due to "exceptional U.S. government coordination and military response" that helped save the lives of two seriously wounded Americans.
- Created on 17 December 2012
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Pakistan's troubled northwest tribal region near the Afghan border Monday, killing 17 people and wounding more than 40 others, officials said.
The bomb went off next to the women's waiting area of a bus stop, which is located near the office of one of the top political officials in the Khyber tribal area, said Hidayat Khan, a local government official. But it's unclear if the office was the target.
The 17 dead included five boys and two women, said Abdul Qudoos, a doctor at a local hospital in Jamrud town, where the attack occurred. At least 44 people were wounded, he said.
The explosives were packed in a small, white car that was parked in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, said Shireen Afridi, who was nearby buying a phone card when the bomb exploded.
"There was fire in which children burned, women burned, poor Afghan people burned, and it caused a lot of destruction," said Afridi. "People's heads were lying in the drain."
Local TV footage showed several cars and shops in the market that were badly damaged. Residents threw buckets of water on burning vehicles as rescue workers transported the wounded to the hospital.
The market was located close to the office of the assistant political agent for Khyber, said Khan, who works in the office. Initial reports wrongly indicated the women's waiting area was for the political office, not the bus stop.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Khyber is home to various Islamist militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, which have waged a bloody insurgency against the government for the past few years.
Taliban militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at an army convoy in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Monday, killing three soldiers and wounding three others, said Nisar Ahmad, a local government official.
The soldiers were escorting a polio vaccination team outside the town of Lakki Marwat when the attack occurred, said Wazir Khan, a local resident.
The Taliban have spoken out against polio vaccination in recent months, claiming the health workers are acting as spies for the U.S. and the vaccine itself cause harm.
A Pakistani Taliban spokesman in the South Waziristan tribal area, Asim Mehsud, claimed responsibility in a telephone call to The Associated Press.
"These polio drops are a deadly American campaign to poison us," he said.
The army has carried out offensives against the Taliban in most parts of the tribal region, including Khyber, but militants continue to carry out regular attacks in the country.
On Saturday night, 10 Taliban militants attacked the military side of an international airport in Peshawar with rockets and car bombs, killing four people and wounding over 40 others. Five of the militants were killed during the attack, and five others died the next day in a gunbattle with security forces.
Elsewhere on Monday, gunmen killed a provincial government spokesman in the southwest Pakistan in an apparent sectarian attack, and then shot to death two nearby policemen, police said.
The attackers shot dead Khadim Hussain Noori in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, said local police official Hamid Shakeel. Noori was the provincial spokesman and also a Shiite Muslim.
As the gunmen were speeding away on a motorcycle, they killed two policemen and wounded a third, said Shakeel.
Baluchistan has experienced a spike in sectarian killings in the past year as radical Sunni Muslims have targeted Shiites, who they consider heretics.
The province is also the scene of a decades-long insurgency by Baluch nationalists who demand greater autonomy and a larger share of the province's natural resources.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
- Created on 18 December 2012
(AP) — More than a dozen heavily armed gunmen kidnapped and held NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and several colleagues for five days inside Syria, keeping them blindfolded and tied up before they finally escaped unharmed during a firefight between their captors and anti-regime rebels, Engel said Tuesday.
Speaking to NBC's "Today" show one day after the escape, an unshaven Engel said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which is fighting to crush a bloody uprising by rebels. He said they executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time he was captured.
"They kept us blindfolded, bound," said 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads fluent Arabic. "We weren't physically beaten or tortured. A lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused, there were mock shootings," he added.
"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government," said Engel. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime.
Engel said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.
Around 11 p.m. Monday night, Engel said they were being moved to another location.
"And as we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected. We were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan," he said. "The kidnappers saw this checkpoint and started a gunfight with it. Two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them."
The team crossed back into neighboring Turkey earlier Tuesday.
NBC did not identify the others who were kidnapped along with Engel. The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing.
The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 40,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011. Those journalists whom the regime has allowed in are tightly controlled in their movements by Information Ministry minders. Many foreign journalists sneak into Syria illegally with the help of smugglers.
Several journalists have been killed covering the conflict. Among them are award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain's Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. Also, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.
Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was named chief foreign correspondent in April 2008. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has lived in the Middle East since he graduated from Stanford University in 1996, according to his biography from NBC. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic.
- Created on 14 December 2012
(AP) — The U.S. will send two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force meant to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attack, the Pentagon said Friday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed a deployment order en route to Turkey from Afghanistan calling for 400 U.S. soldiers to operate two batteries of Patriots at undisclosed locations in Turkey, Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters flying with Panetta.
Germany and the Netherlands have already agreed to provide two batteries of the U.S.-built defense systems and send up to 400 German and 360 Dutch troops to man them, bringing the total number of Patriot batteries slated for Turkey to six. The German Parliament is expected to formally agree to the deployment on Friday. NATO foreign ministers endorsed Turkey's request for the Patriots on Nov. 30.
A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict in the Arab state began in March 2011. Turkey has condemned the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, supported Syrian rebels and provided shelter to Syrian refugees. Ankara is particularly worried that Assad may get desperate enough to use chemical weapons.
During a brief stop at Incirlik Air Base, Panetta told U.S. troops that Turkey might need the Patriots, which are capable of shooting down shorter-range ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.
He said he approved the deployment "so that we can help Turkey have the kind of missile defense it may very well need to deal with the threats coming out of Syria," he said.
In a statement issued Friday NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "the deployment will be defensive only."
"It will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation. Its aim is to deter any threats to Turkey, to defend Turkey's population and territory and to de-escalate the crisis on NATO's south-eastern border," Lungescu said.
Panetta did not mention how soon the two Patriot batteries will head to Turkey or how long they might stay.
Earlier this week in Berlin, German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Link told lawmakers that current plans call for the missile sites to be stationed at Kahramanmaras, about 60 miles north of Turkey's border with Syria. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Thursday that the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. are working closely with Turkey "to ensure that the Patriots are deployed as soon as possible." But he predicted they would not become operational before the end of January. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, three years after the alliance was formed.
At Incirlik Air Base, about 60 miles north of the Syrian border, an Air Force member asked Panetta what the US would do if Syria used chemical or biological weapons against the rebels. Panetta said he could not be specific in a public setting, but added, "we have drawn up plans" that give President Barack Obama a set of options in the event that U.S. intelligence shows that Syria intends to use such weapons.
Asked by another Air Force member whether he thought Syria would "react negatively" to the Patriot deployments, Panetta said, "I don't think they have the damn time to worry" about the Patriots since the regime's leaders are struggling to stay in power.
He indicated that Syria's reaction to the Patriots was not a major concern to him.
Separately, NATO will deploy its Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, or AWACS, to Turkey on a training exercise this month, said a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity because alliance rules do not allow him to speak on the record.
He said the exercise was not connected to the deployment of the Patriots.
The aircraft, which can detect launches of ground-to-ground missiles, will exercise command and control procedures as well as test the connectivity of various NATO and Turkish communications and data sharing systems, the official said.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.