TPM World News

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister on Sunday rejected international calls for an investigation into deadly violence along Gaza’s border with Israel, saying troops acted appropriately and fired only at Palestinian protesters who posed a threat.Fifteen Palestinians were killed and over 700 wounded in Friday’s violence near the Israeli border, according to Palestinian health officials. It was the area’s deadliest violence since a war four years ago.

Human rights groups have accused the army of using excessive force, and both the U.N. secretary-general and the European Union’s foreign policy chief have urged an investigation.

In an interview, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would not cooperate with a U.N. inquiry if there were one.

“From the standpoint of the Israeli soldiers, they did what had to be done,” Lieberman told Israeli Army Radio. “I think that all of our troops deserve a commendation, and there won’t be any inquiry.”

Friday’s mass marches were largely led by Gaza’s ruling Hamas group and touted as the launch of a six-week-long protest campaign against a stifling decade-old blockade of the territory. Israel and Egypt have maintained the blockade since Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized control of Gaza in 2007.

In Friday’s confrontations, large crowds gathered near the fence, with smaller groups of protesters rushing forward, throwing stones and burning tires.

Israeli troops responded with live fire and rubber-coated steel pellets, while drones dropped tear gas from above. Soldiers with rifles were perched on high earthen embankments overlooking the scene.

Protests have continued since Friday but at a far smaller scale. On Sunday, one person was seriously wounded by gunfire, Palestinian medical officials said.

The military has said it responded only to violent attacks aimed at troops and the border fence. But video from the scene showed at least a handful of incidents in which people appear to have been shot either far from the border or while they were not actively rioting.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of releasing videos that were either incomplete, edited or “completely fabricated.” It said troops had followed strict rules of engagement, and that protesters were putting themselves in “harm’s way” by operating in a dangerous area.

In the interview, Lieberman said those who protested peacefully were not harmed, saying claims that peaceful protesters were harmed were “lies and inventions.”

“Whoever didn’t get close to the fence was not shot,” he said.

Tamar Zandberg, leader of the dovish opposition party Meretz, posted a video over the weekend calling for an independent inquiry into Friday’s violence.

“I’m worried about the fate of all of us, and the fate of the residents of the Gaza periphery communities, who could be sitting in bomb shelters today, tomorrow or next week,” she told Army Radio, “so I’m calling to stop this now.”

Zandberg came under heavy criticism for her comments. “As if this were a case of innocent civilians who had been shot while doing their holiday shopping, rather than people who had been pushed to the border by Hamas in order to be killed in service to the Palestinian narrative,” wrote defense analyst Alon Ben-David.

The Israeli military has said those killed by troops were men who were involved in violence and who belonged to Hamas and other militant factions. The army later released the names and ages of 10 of the dead, including what it said were eight members of Hamas and two from other militant groups.

Israel has also accused Gaza health officials of exaggerating the number of wounded.

Four of the 15 dead were members of the Hamas military wing, Hamas said Saturday. The group said a fifth member who was not on the Health Ministry list was killed near the border, and that Israel has the body. It said another man is also missing in the border area.

The protests are to culminate in a large border march on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. The date is mourned by Palestinians as their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.

Israel has warned that it will not allow the border to be breached. It also accuses Hamas of trying to use protests as a cover for planting explosives and staging attacks. On Saturday, Israel’s military said it will target militant groups inside Gaza if the border violence drags on.

It appears unlikely that large-scale protests will continue daily, with larger turnouts only expected after Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week.

Inside Israel, most of the country has lined up solidly behind the army. Still, on Sunday, dozens of Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the violence, criticizing Israel for its response.

Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, and it has battled Israel in three wars since taking control of Gaza.

The group has been badly weakened by the blockade, international isolation and the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It appears to be taking a gamble by using the protests to attract attention to Gaza without sparking another painful war.

Read More →

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russia’s Foreign Ministry has accused U.S. intelligence services of trying to recruit Russian diplomats expelled by the U.S. amid a diplomatic conflict over the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain.

The ministry said Friday it saw a “sharp increase in provocative actions against Russian diplomats” following the U.S. decision earlier this week to order out 60 Russian diplomats.

It said American intelligence services have engaged in “frantic efforts” to make cooperation offers to the expelled diplomats. The ministry described the alleged U.S. overtures as “cynical and disgusting,” adding that they have failed.

Two dozen countries ordered more than 150 Russian diplomats out in a show of solidarity with Britain over the nerve agent attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal. Moscow denies involvement and has responded in kind.

Read More →

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia ordered new cuts Friday to the number of British envoys in the country, escalating a dispute with the West over the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain. The massive expulsion of diplomats on both sides has reached a scale unseen even at the height of the Cold War.

Two dozen countries, including the U.S. and many EU nations, and NATO ordered out more than 150 Russian diplomats this week in a show of solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter that London blamed on Russia.

Moscow has vehemently denied involvement in the March 4 nerve agent attack in the city of Salisbury and announced Thursday that it would expel the same number of diplomats from each nation.

The Russian Foreign Ministry further escalated its response Friday, saying it has ordered Britain to reduce the number of its diplomats in Moscow to the level that Russia has in London. That exact number wasn’t immediately clear.

The ministry said it summoned the British ambassador to hand him a protest over the “provocative and unsubstantiated actions by Britain, which instigated the expulsion of Russian diplomats from various nations for no reason.” It gave London one month to reduce its diplomatic personnel in Russia.

When Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats earlier this month, Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko said it represented a 40-percent cut in the number of embassy personnel.

Commenting on the Russian move, a spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office said “it’s regrettable but in light of Russia’s previous behavior, we anticipated a response.”

“However, this doesn’t change the facts of the matter: the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable,” she said. “Russia is in flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention and actions by countries around the world have demonstrated the depth of international concern.”

A hospital treating Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, said Thursday that the woman was improving rapidly and was now in stable condition, though her father remained in critical condition.

Speaking to reporters Friday in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that “Russia didn’t start any diplomatic wars,” and “remains open for developing good ties.”

He added that Russia has called a meeting of the international chemical weapons watchdog next week to press for an “unbiased and objective investigation.”

Russia has accused Britain of failing to back up its accusations with evidence and refusing to share materials from the probe. The Foreign Ministry said it told the British ambassador on Friday that Moscow is ready to cooperate in the investigation.

On Thursday, Russia summoned the U.S. ambassador to announce the expulsion of 60 U.S. diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to Washington’s move. Scores of Western ambassadors arrived at the Russian Foreign Ministry Friday to receive notices on the expulsions of their diplomats.

In response to the U.S. move earlier this week to close the Russian Consulate in Seattle, Moscow shut the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, giving it until Saturday to vacate the premises.

An Associated Press reporter on Friday saw U.S. consulate staff carrying boxes from the building in St. Petersburg and loading them into a van. Several mini-vans drove out of the consulate while security also detained a man who threw a Starbucks cup at the building.

Some passers-by near the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg cheered the expulsions.

“Let them get out of here,” said 61-year-old retiree Viktor Fedin. “You won’t put Russia on its knees.”

Others were more cautious, worried that the closures would affect visa processing for Russians.

“The Russian government has to respond to the hostile actions against Russia,” said 32-year-old researcher Yelena Bogomazova. “But the escalation is bad. The closure of the consulate will make it difficult for people to get U.S. visas. They will have to go to Moscow.”

After Russia expelled several dozen U.S. diplomats, the waiting list for U.S. visa applications in Russia has increased to weeks, if not months. The U.S. Embassy said it was unable to process visa applications faster because of the staff shortage.

Read More →

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Thursday responded quid pro quo to the wave of Western expulsions of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in Britain, while a hospital treating the pair said the woman is improving rapidly and is out of critical condition.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious and critically ill in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. British authorities blamed Russia for poisoning them with a military-grade nerve agent, accusations Russia has vehemently denied.

Two dozen countries, including the U.S., many EU nations and NATO, have ordered more than 150 Russian diplomats out this week in a show of solidarity with Britain — a massive action unseen even at the height of the Cold War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at news conference Thursday that Moscow will expel the same number of diplomats from each of those countries in retaliation.

Lavrov added that just as he was making the statement, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman was invited to the Foreign Ministry, where he was handed notice that Russia is responding quid pro quo to the U.S. decision to order 60 Russian diplomats out.

Lavrov said Moscow will also retaliate to the U.S. decision to shut the Russian consulate in Seattle by closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.

The Foreign Ministry said the U.S. diplomats, including 58 diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and two from the U.S. consulate in Yekaterinburg, must leave Russia by April 5. It added that the U.S. must leave the consulate in St. Petersburg no later than Saturday.

The ministry warned that in case the U.S. takes further “hostile actions” against Russian missions, Russia will respond in kind.

“We invite the U.S. authorities who are encouraging a slanderous campaign against our country to come back to their senses and stop thoughtless actions to destroy bilateral relations,” it said.

Lavrov emphasized that the expulsions followed a “brutal pressure” from the U.S. and Britain who forced their allies to “follow the anti-Russian course.”

He also noted that the job of the international chemical weapons watchdog is to determine what chemical agent was used to poison Skripal and his daughter, not verify the British conclusions.

Lavrov said that Moscow called a meeting Monday of the secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to discuss the case.

Meanwhile, Salisbury NHS Trust, which oversees the hospital where the Skripals are being treated, said Thursday 33-year-old Yulia is “improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition. Her condition is now stable.”

“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day,” said Dr. Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital.

Sergei Skripal, 66, remains in critical condition, the hospital said.

Lavrov said that Russia would seek consular access to Yulia Skripalr now that she regained consciousness.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was imprisoned after he sold secrets to British intelligence. He was released in a 2010 spy swap and moved to Britain.

Britain says he and his daughter, who was visiting from Russia, were poisoned with a nerve agent developed in Soviet times and that it must have come from Russia.

Police say they were likely exposed to the poison on the door of Sergei Skripal’s suburban house in Salisbury, where the highest concentration of the chemical has been found.

About 250 British counterterrorism officers are working on the investigation, retracing the Skripals’ movements to uncover how the poison was delivered. They have searched a pub, a restaurant and a cemetery, and on Thursday cordoned off a children’s playground near the Skripal home.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Britain’s allegation of Russian involvement in the poisoning was a “swindle” and an “international provocation.” She said Russia continued to demand access to investigation materials, which Britain has refused to share.

Zakharova charged that Britain, the U.S., the Czech Republic and Sweden all have researched the nerve agent that London said was used to poison the Skripals.

She said that the Western research into the class of nerve agent, known as Novichok, was reflected in numerous open source documents of NATO members. Britain and its allies have dismissed previous Russian claims that they possessed that type of nerve agent.

Read More →

LONDON (AP) — The daughter of a Russian ex-spy who was poisoned in a nerve-agent attack along with her father is improving rapidly and is out of critical condition, the hospital treating the pair said Thursday.

Yulia Skripal’s 66-year-old father Sergei remains in critical condition.

Salisbury NHS Trust, which oversees the hospital where the Skripals are being treated, said 33-year-old Yulia is “improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition. Her condition is now stable.”

“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day,” said Dr. Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital.

The Skripals were found unconscious in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, and British authorities say they were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.

Police say they were likely exposed to it on the door of Sergei Skripal’s suburban house in Salisbury, where the highest concentration of the chemical has been found.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was imprisoned after he sold secrets to British intelligence. He was released in a 2010 spy swap and moved to Britain.

Britain says he and his daughter, who was visiting from Russia, were poisoned with a nerve agent developed in Soviet times and that it must have come from Russia.

Moscow vehemently denies involvement in the attack, which has sparked a diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West.

More than two dozen countries have expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats, including 60 kicked out by the U.S. The former Soviet republic of Georgia joined the list Thursday, saying it would expel one Russian diplomat in solidarity with Britain.

The announcement follows the expulsion of Russian diplomats by European Union nations, the U.S., NATO and other countries.

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the diplomat has been declared persona non grata and must leave within a week. The ministry condemned the poisoning, calling it a “serious challenge to common security.”

Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Russia following a brief war in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Russian diplomats have been operating out of the special interests section of the Swiss Embassy in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, since 2009.

Read More →

PARIS (AP) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is being ordered to stand trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling.

It is one of multiple corruption cases targeting Sarkozy, and marks the second case so far in which he is being sent to trial. He has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

In the latest case, a judicial official said Thursday that judges issued an order for Sarkozy to stand trial on accusations that he tried to illegally get information from a judge about an investigation targeting him. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

The former president, 63, can appeal the order.

In a separate case, Sarkozy was given preliminary charges last week of getting illegal campaign financing in 2007 from late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Read More →

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said Thursday she was excited to be back in Pakistan for the first time since she was shot in 2012 by Taliban militants angry at her championing of education for girls.

Yousafzai, who landed in her home country just before dawn flanked by heavy security, said in a brief speech at a ceremony at Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s office that she will continue to campaign for the education of girls and asked Pakistanis to be united on issues like providing better health care and education.

She said she remembered having to leave Pakistan for treatment after she was attacked. Covering her tear-filled eyes with her hands, Yousafzai said it was hard to wait for more than five years to return home.

“It is now actually happening and I am here,” she said.

It’s unclear how long Yousafzai will stay, neither she nor her family have announced any travel plans. Pakistani officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said their understanding is that her visit will last until Monday.

Speaking after meeting the prime minister, Yousafzai said Pakistan was always in her thoughts — even when she traveled to cities like New York or London.

“I was always dreaming for the past five years, that I can come to my country, whenever I was travelling abroad,” she said, adding that her dreams were of simple things, “like driving in Karachi, Islamabad.”

“Finally, I am here,” she said.

Since the attack, Yousafzai spent lengthy stretches of time undergoing medical treatment to recover from her wounds. She also went to school in Britain.

Her native Swat Valley still sees occasional militant attacks, though the Pakistani military has largely restored peace since retaking the area. In February, a suicide bombing at an empty lot used by soldiers for sports and exercise killed 11 troops, underscoring the threat that militants still pose to the region and this Islamic nation.

Abbasi praised Yousafzai for her sacrifices and role in the promotion of girls’ education. He said he was happy to welcome her home, where he said “terrorism has been eliminated” — a line often repeated by Islamabad despite persisting militant attacks across the country.

Since her attack and recovery, Yousafzai has also led the “Malala Fund,” which she said has invested $6 million in schools and to provide books and uniforms for schoolchildren.

“For the betterment of Pakistan, it is necessary to educate girls and empower women,” she said.

Earlier, tight security greeted the now-20-year-old university student upon her arrival at Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Local television stations showed her with her parents in the lounge at the airport, before leaving in a convoy of nearly 15 vehicles, many of them occupied by heavily armed police.

Her return had been shrouded in secrecy and she was not likely to travel to her hometown of Mingora in the Swat Valley, where the shooting occurred.

As news broke about Yousafzai’s arrival, many of her fellow Pakistanis welcomed her.

The party of Imran Khan, former international cricket star and now leading Pakistani opposition politician, said Yousafzai’s return was a sign of the defeat of extremism in the country.

Mohammad Hassan, one of Yousafzai’s cousins in the northwestern town of Mingora, said it was one of the happiest days of his life. He said he was not sure whether Yousafzai will visit her hometown, where he said schoolchildren were jubilant and wished they could greet her.

Javeria Khan, a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Mingora said she wished she “could see her in Swat.”

“I wish she had come here, but we welcome her,” she said, as she sat among schoolchildren.

Marvi Memon, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, said it was a pleasant surprise for her to see Yousafzai back home and a “proud day” for Pakistan.

“What an incredible surprise, I woke up to this morning” to know that Yousafzai is back along with her parents, Memon said.

Yousafzai was just 14 years old but already known for her activism when Taliban gunman boarded the school van in which she was sitting and demanded to know “who is Malala?” before shooting her in the head. Two of her classmates were also wounded.

In critical condition, Yousafzai was flown to the garrison city of Rawalpindi before being airlifted to Birmingham in Britain.

She has since spoken at the United Nations, mesmerizing the world with her eloquence and her unrelenting commitment to the promotion of girls’ education through the Malala Fund, a book, meetings with refugees and other activism.

She was awarded the Nobel in 2014, along with Indian child-rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, and said on the day she collected the prize that “education is one of the blessings of life, and one of its necessities.”

She remained in Britain after undergoing medical treatment there and was accepted to the University of Oxford last year.

At home in Pakistan, however, she has been condemned by some as a Western mouthpiece. Some have even suggested on social media that the shooting was staged. Yousafzai has repeatedly responded to the criticism with a grace far outstripping her years, often saying education is neither Western, nor Eastern.

Often when she has spoken in public, Yousafzai has championed her home country and spoken in her native Pashto language, always promising to return to her home.

On March 23, when Pakistan celebrated Pakistan Day, Yousafzai tweeted, “I cherish fond memories of home, of playing cricket on rooftops and singing the national anthem in school. Happy Pakistan Day!”

Local television channels have been showing her return to Pakistan with some replaying the horror of her shooting and the rush to get her treatment.

Pakistani officials say they captured several suspects after the attack on Yousafzai, but the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, is still on the run and believed to be hiding in neighboring Afghanistan.

Fazlullah’s spokesman, Mohammad Khurasani, earlier this month said Fazlullah’s son was among 21 “holy warriors” killed by missiles fired by a U.S. drone at a seminary in Afghanistan in early March.

Read More →

QUEBEC CITY (AP) — The man accused in the slayings of six men at a Quebec City mosque asked for forgiveness Wednesday after changing his mind and pleading guilty.

Alexandre Bissonnette faced six charges of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder. More than 50 people were at the Islamic Cultural Centre in January last year when the shooting began during evening prayers. Six men aged between 39 and 60 were killed.

“Every minute of my existence I bitterly regret what I did, the lives I have destroyed, the pain and suffering I have caused to so many people, without forgetting the members of my own family,” Alexandre Bissonnette said as he read out a letter in court. “I am ashamed of what I did.”

Bissonnette, 28, spoke to the court shortly after a judge accepted his guilty pleas. Many people in the courtroom burst out sobbing and held hands as the judge confirmed the guilty pleas.

He originally pleaded not guilty to the 12 charges Monday morning but that afternoon announced he wanted to plead guilty.

Superior Court Justice Francois Huot refused to accept the pleas Monday pending a psychiatric assessment of the accused to ensure he fully understood the consequences of his decision. Huot placed a publication ban on Monday afternoon’s proceedings but agreed Wednesday to accept the 12 guilty pleas.

In reading his letter, Bissonnette said he had been “overcome by fear, by negative thoughts and a sort of horrible kind of despair” before the shootings.

“It’s though I was battling a demon that finished by winning out … I would like to ask for forgiveness for what I did, but I know my acts are unforgivable.”

On Monday, Bissonnette said he wanted to plead guilty in order to “avoid a trial and for the victims to not have to relive this tragedy.”

Bissonnette told the judge then he had been thinking for some time of pleading guilty but that he was missing certain pieces of evidence, which were relayed Sunday.

When Huot asked him if he was fully aware of what he was doing, Bissonnette replied, “Yes.”

Huot asked Bissonnette whether he knew he would be getting a life sentence and he answered, “I understand.”

Huot also asked him if he understood he could receive consecutive sentences, meaning 150 years of prison.

“I know,” Bissonnette replied, in a low voice.

Psychiatrist Sylvain Faucher said Bissonnette “is fit to stand trial and to plead what he wants to plead.”

“He did not want to be the perpetrator of another collective drama,” said Faucher, who met with Bissonnette on Monday evening.

Many members of Quebec City’s Muslim community were present in court Monday and Wednesday.

Amir Belkacemi, whose 60-year-old father Khaled Belkacemi was killed, said no one wants to live the trauma again.

“That the trial won’t have to take place, it’s a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for everyone in the community,” said Amir Belkacemi, the son of victim Khaled Belkacemi, told reporters. “Very relieved.”

Jury selection was scheduled to start April 3 and the trial to last two months.

Sentencing arguments will take place at a later date.

Those who monitor extremist groups in Quebec described the French-Canadian university student as someone who took extreme nationalist positions at Laval University and on social media. He was a supporter of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Quebec’s premier previously acknowledged the French-speaking province has its “demons” in terms of attitudes toward Muslims.

Read More →

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador’s government is cutting off WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s communications outside the nation’s London embassy.

Officials announced Wednesday they were taking the measure in response to Assange’s recent activity on social media.

As part of an agreement between Assange and the Ecuadorean government, he is not permitted to send any messages that could interfere with the South American nation’s relations with other countries.

Assange has been living in Ecuador’s embassy for more than five years.

Ecuador gave Assange asylum after he sought refuge in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden for investigation of sex-related claims. Sweden dropped the case, but Assange remains subject to arrest in Britain for jumping bail.

Read More →

BEIJING (AP) — North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sought to portray strong ties between the long-time allies despite a recent chill as both countries on Wednesday confirmed Kim’s secret trip to Beijing this week.

The visit highlights Beijing and Pyongyang’s efforts to better position themselves by showing they support each other ahead of Kim’s planned meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump in the coming weeks.

Kim made the unofficial visit to China from Sunday to Wednesday at Xi’s invitation, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, in what was in his first trip to a foreign country since he took power in 2011.

Xi held talks with Kim at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and he and his wife Peng Liyuan hosted a banquet for Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju, Xinhua said. They also watched an art performance together, the news agency said.

Official reports from both countries depicted in effusive terms warm ties between the two leaders in an effort to downplay recent tensions in relations over Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

In these reports, “Kim reaffirms the traditional friendship between the two countries as if nothing had ever happened, when the relationship had plummeted to unprecedented lows,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ties in recent months have frayed as China supported tougher U.N. sanctions on North Korea and suspended imports of coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles. Pyongyang last year seemingly sought to humiliate Beijing by timing some of its missile tests for major global summits in China, while its state media accused Chinese state-controlled media of “going under the armpit of the U.S.” by criticizing the North.

Xi hailed Kim’s visit as embodying the importance with which the North Korean leader regarded ties with China.

“We speak highly of this visit,” Xi told Kim, according to Xinhua.

For China, the visit also reminds other countries that Beijing remains one of North Korea’s most important allies and is a player not to be sidelined in denuclearization talks. It also projects to the Chinese public that Xi is firmly in charge of steering Beijing’s relations with North Korea in a way that favors China’s interests.

“Here is Xi Jinping saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything is going to be great’,” Glaser said.

Analysts say Kim would have felt a need to consult with his country’s traditional ally ahead of summits with Moon and Trump. China would also not want Kim’s first foreign meeting to be with someone other than Xi.

“China was getting concerned it could be left out of any initial political agreements that Moon and Kim or Trump and Kim could come to,” said Michael Kovrig, senior advisor for northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group.

“This is China asserting its regional hegemony and influence, saying: ‘Hey, you talk to me first.'”

Kim was described by Xinhua as saying that his country wants to transform ties with South Korea into “a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation.” The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Kim also said that North Korea is willing to hold a summit with the United States, according to Xinhua.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency published Kim’s personal letter to Xi dated on Wednesday, where he expressed gratitude to the Chinese leadership for showing what he described as “heartwarming hospitality” during his “productive” visit.

Kim said that the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries will provide a “groundbreaking milestone” in developing mutual relations to “meet the demands of the new era.” Kim also said that he’s satisfied that the leaders confirmed their “unified opinions” on mutual issues.

“For the North Koreans, it is in their best interests to enter any meetings with Moon or Trump having shored up and repaired to a certain extent their relations with Beijing,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

KCNA said Kim also called for more meetings with Xi and other Chinese officials to deepen the ties between the countries and also asked Xi to visit North Korea at a time convenient for him, to which Xi “gladly accepted.”

The North’s diplomatic outreach this year follows a tenser 2017 when it conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date and tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to target the U.S. mainland.

The developments are being interpreted as the North being desperate to break out of isolation and improve its economy after being squeezed by heavy sanctions.

“At least one of the things that Kim would want out of these meetings is a way forward to begin to ease those sanctions and support from China in that effort,” Glaser said.

China remains North Korea’s only major ally and chief provider of energy, aid and trade that keep the country’s broken economy afloat.

In a speech at a banquet in China, Kim described the traditional allies as inseparable “neighboring brothers” with a relationship molded by a “sacred mutual fight” to achieve socialist ideals, according to KCNA.

In addition to the trip being his first abroad as leader, his talk with Xi was his first meeting with a foreign head of state. Kim’s father, late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, had visited China several times during his rule, lastly in May 2011, months before his death that December.

“It’s most proper that my first overseas trip would be the capital of the People’s Republic of China,” said Kim Jong Un, according to the North Korean agency. “It’s also one of my noble duties to value the North Korea-China friendship as I do my own life.”

___

Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.

Read More →

LiveWire