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The Star Online: World Updates

Exclusive - Comrade of American held in North Korea recalls friendship, stealth mission


(Reuters) - In early 1953, Merrill Newman and Allen Hedges were among a small group of U.S. servicemen hunkered down on a tiny, frequently shelled island off the west coast of North Korea.

They had orders to never make the dangerous journey across the narrow strait of water onto the mainland. And so, Hedges said, they never did.

Why Newman felt compelled to set foot in North Korea more than 60 years after the end of the Korean War remains a baffling question to Hedges and several other surviving members of the U.S. Army 8240th Unit.

Newman, now an 85-year-old retired business executive living in California, was detained in late October while visiting North Korea on a tourist trip. The former first lieutenant has been held ever since. The North's KCNA news agency said he was a mastermind of clandestine operations and accused him of killing civilians during the war.

"I can't believe it," Hedges said in a telephone interview from his home in Vanceburg, Kentucky. Hedges was not aware his former comrade had been detained until contacted by Reuters.

"If I know Newman, he went up there to do something good, because I know he's a good man. His philosophy was we did good up there, we shortened the war and saved lives," Hedges said on Monday.

The White House and the U.S. State Department have both called for Newman's release, although Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations. North Korea allowed Swedish diplomats to visit him on Saturday.

Hedges said he was 19 or so when he and Newman arrived in early 1953 on Cho-Do, a few miles out into the Yellow Sea off the North Korean coast. Their mission was to train and coordinate a battalion of Korean anti-communist guerrillas called the 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment, Hedges said. This was one of the main functions of the 8240th Unit, according to published histories and accounts of other former members.

Hedges, now 80 years old, said he and Newman would dispatch teams of the guerrillas by boat to try and disrupt a North Korean coastal supply line.

A U.S. Army spokeswoman said she was unable to confirm the details of personnel and missions that pre-date 1999. The State Department said their records only date back to 1970.

Official documents at the National Archives in Washington D.C., along with various historians' accounts, confirm the basics of the 8240th Unit's deployment and its missions. They do not give specific details about the roles of Newman and Hedges.

Hedges says he and Newman lived in mud houses and the Koreans in tents, filling their days and nights with leading the guerrillas in physical exercises, training them in weapons use, and advising them on strategy.

Downtime, when it unpredictably arrived, was passed with cooking army rations on portable gas stoves and, in Hedges' case, short joyrides on an army motorcycle.

"You don't sleep much in an environment like that," Hedges said, recalling frequent night bombing raids by North Korean light aircraft called "Bed Check Charlies" by the allied forces. "We had to stay way on the other side of the island." Cho-Do's eastern flank, where the allied forces had built a radar station, was just about within the range of guns from the North Korean People's Army on the mainland's coast.

Newman and Hedges helped coordinate the 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment with other forces fighting on behalf of the U.S.-backed South against the China- and Soviet-backed North.

Monthly reports by the Combined Command For Reconnaissance Activities Korea (CCRAK) show the 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment did not contribute a high proportion of enemy casualties compared to other units of the partisan division. For instance, the unit caused 150 out of 2,650 casualties - killed, wounded and captured - done by the division in April of 1953. In July, it was none out of 271.

Hedges said sometimes the boats of guerillas would return emptier than when they had departed.

"I just hated to see the kids getting killed, 17, 18 years old, all getting blown up," Hedges said. "It wasn't very nice."

Planes from a nearby British aircraft carrier also conducted aerial raids on the supply line, and the guerrillas would attempt to rescue pilots who crashed or who were shot down on the mainland. "We lost a few, we got a few," Hedges said.

Hedges recalls Newman fondly from their overlapping several months on the island. He said Newman was interested in zoology and had a habit of heading to the island's far shore to collect fish and other sea creatures, which he then preserved in alcohol in glass jars back at the camp, taking some 40 or 50 samples with him when he left the island. With little else to kill time during an idle moment on the island, Hedges recalled playing with a snake until he was approached by an alarmed Newman.

"If that bit you, you ain't going to make it to the doctor in time," Hedges recalled Newman telling him. "He probably saved my life."

Newman left Cho-Do before Hedges, who stayed behind past the signing of the armistice in July 1953 as evacuation of the islands got underway, and the pair eventually fell out of touch until a Korean War veterans' reunion in 2001. "We didn't talk much about the old days," Hedges said.

Newman worked as a manufacturing and business executive before retiring in 1984, according to a biography of him in a newsletter from Channing House, his retirement home in Palo Alto, California. Hedges worked for several decades as a factory supervisor in upstate New York.

"I put that war right out of my head," Hedges said. "I didn't talk about it, I didn't think about it. I didn't like it."

For example, Hedges says he never even thought to tell Newman that, shortly after Newman left the island, their main Korean interpreter was discovered to be a double-agent reporting back to the North Koreans. Hedges said he does not know what happened to the man after he was handed over to the partisans.

A few years ago, Newman asked Hedges if he would join him on a trip to South Korea. Hedges declined, and said the idea of visiting North Korea was never raised with him.

Others in the 8240th Unit said they were surprised one of their members would visit the north. They did not know Newman personally, but said the nature of his wartime mission meant he would never have been on the mainland before.

"I'm in touch with a lot of people," said Reuben Mooradian, a former 8240th first lieutenant. "We have an association and we have reunions every few years, and I've never heard once anybody say they'd like to go to North Korea. I don't know what in the hell he was doing," said Mooradian, who now lives in Beech Mountain, North Carolina. He was deployed to a different island, and does not recall ever meeting Newman.

On Saturday, North Korea released a video showing Newman reading a handwritten confession of his role in the war. The confession has several passages in ungrammatical or unidiomatic English, and it is unclear whether Newman was coerced into writing it.

Hedges bristled at the North Korean accusation that Newman killed civilians during the war.

"That's a damn lie, we never killed civilians, in fact we never killed anybody," Hedges said of himself and Newman, describing their mission as being restricted to training the guerrilla forces, an assertion echoed by Mooradian and two other members of the 8240th Unit. "I'll swear to that," Hedges said.

Thai police step aside, move to defuse anti-govt protests


BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police said on Tuesday they would not stand in the way of protesters battling to seize the prime minister's office and city police headquarters, focal points of demonstrations aimed at toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

A Reuters witness said police were clearing barbed-wire barricades from outside the police headquarters. Television pictures showed protesters and police officers mingling outside the building and Government House, where Yingluck's office is.

The protests have brought clouds of teargas, rubber bullets and intermittent gunfire to parts of Bangkok, the latest turmoil in the struggle between the Bangkok-based establishment and forces loyal to Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban vilified the police in a speech to cheering supporters late on Monday and said the protesters would capture their city headquarters on Tuesday.

But, in a move to defuse the confrontation, city police chief Kamronvit Thoopkrachang said his men would not fight the protesters.

"In every area where there has been confrontation, we have now ordered all police to withdraw. It is government policy to avoid confrontation," Kamronvit told Reuters.

"Today, we won't use teargas, no confrontation, we will let them in if they want," he said.

Kamronvit is close to Thaksin, himself a former policeman and then a telecommunications tycoon, who became Thailand's most popular politician with policies to help the urban and rural poor.

A government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Yingluck had promised not to use force against the crowds trying to storm state agencies.

Early on Tuesday a helicopter dropped leaflets over the protesters reminding them that their leader, Suthep, was wanted on a charge of insurrection.

"So please, stay away from him and stay away from the unlawful gatherings," media quoted the government as saying in the leaflets.

Suthep is a former deputy prime minister of a government bitterly opposed to Thaksin that ordered the military to put down pro-Thaksin protests in 2010. About 90 people were killed.

Yingluck's government came to power with a landslide election victory in 2011.

More chaos and violence could have increased the chances of the army stepping in to restore order, but offering to let the protesters in to avoid bloodshed may make the government look magnanimous.

Thai financial markets have fallen sharply since the protests began more than a month ago but on Tuesday the baht was steadier at around 32.20 to the dollar, while the stock market rose 1 percent.


Thaksin was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup but while Yingluck said on Monday the army was staying neutral this time.

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters on Tuesday: "This is a political problem that needs to be solved by political means. However, we are monitoring from a distance."

Four people have been killed since the weekend and two protesters were shot and wounded on Monday, a hospital said, adding it was not known who shot them.

Thaksin's opponents hold considerable power and influence, among them wealthy conservatives, top generals, bureaucrats, royalists and many members of the urban middle class.

Many of them see Thaksin as a corrupt, crony capitalist who manipulates the masses with populist handouts and is a threat to the monarchy, which he denies.

He is adored by the urban and rural poor who would be outraged to see Yingluck's government removed. Yingluck said on Monday she was willing to explore every possibility for a peaceful solution. Her party would probably win any new election.

Suthep, 64, who resigned as a Democrat lawmaker to lead the protests, wants a vaguely defined "people's council" to replace the government.

Yingluck said that was unconstitutional.

(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Kochakorn Boonlai; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alan Raybould and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Power outage plunges most of Venezuela into darkness


CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's second massive power outage of the year plunged much of the nation into darkness on Monday night, prompting renewed talk of sabotage from President Nicolas Maduro's government and cries of incompetence from its foes.

Power went off in Caracas and other cities around the country soon after 8 p.m. local time (0030 GMT), to the intense annoyance of residents and commuters.

"I feel so frustrated, angry and impotent," said sales adviser Aneudys Acosta, 29, trudging through the rain along a street in the capital after having to leave the disrupted underground transport system.

"I live far away and here I am stuck under the rain. Something's going wrong that they're not sorting out. The government needs a Plan B. This is just not normal."

Monday's outage appeared similar to a massive September 5 blackout that was one of the worst in the South American OPEC member's history.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who narrowly won a presidential election this year after the death of his mentor and former leader Hugo Chavez, accused the opposition then of deliberately sabotaging the power grid to discredit him.

His powerful ally and National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, repeated the same accusation after Monday's blackout that affected more than half of Venezuela.

"I have no doubt that today's electricity sabotage is part of the right-wing's plan," Cabello said on Twitter.


In some wealthier parts of Caracas, where opposition to the socialist government is strongest, people began banging pots and pans out of their windows in a traditional form of protest.

Some shouted, "Maduro, resign!"

Venezuela has been suffering periodic electricity cuts around the country since 2009, although the capital has been spared the worst outages.

Critics say the power problems symbolize the failure of the government and its 15 years of socialist policies in resource-rich Venezuela. The country has the world's largest crude oil reserves and big rivers that feed hydroelectric facilities generating two-thirds of its power.

The blackouts, some due to planned power rationing and at other times to utility failures, have not affected the oil refineries, which are powered by separate generator plants.

State oil company PDVSA said its installations were all working normally on Monday night, with fuel supplies guaranteed.

Electricity Minister Jesse Chacon said the same major transmission line that went down in September - and carries about 60 percent of national supply - had again been affected.

Power began returning to most parts of Caracas within an hour or two, though remoter parts of the nation of 29 million people were still in the dark late into the evening.

"We ask Venezuelans for patience," Chacon said.


Maduro was giving a live address on state TV when he was abruptly cut off. He later Tweeted that he was continuing to work in the presidential palace despite the "strange" blackout, and appeared live on state TV surrounded by school children.

"Be strong against this electrical war that yesterday's fascists have declared against our people," Maduro said in another address to the nation at about 11 p.m. local time.

Security services were on alert, while the oil industry had been "put on emergency", the president said.

Since winning office in April, Maduro has accused political opponents of conniving with wealthy businessmen and their allies in the United States to undermine his government.

As well as accusing them of sabotaging the power grid, he has alleged plots to assassinate him and to destroy the economy through price-gouging and the hoarding of products.

Venezuelans are suffering from a 54 percent annual inflation rate, as well as scarcities of basic products from flour to toilet paper. Nationwide local municipal elections on Sunday are seen as a major test of Maduro's standing.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said government officials' bellicose statements were "pathetic" at a time of national disquiet. "For once in your lives, be responsible," he Tweeted.

Capriles and others say the reasons for the power failures are obvious and simple: lack of investment, incompetence and corruption within the state-run power company Corpoelec since Chavez's 2007 nationalization of the sector.

Venezuela has a maximum generation capacity of about 28,000 megawatts and normal demand of about 18,000.

The government constantly chides Venezuelans, however, for wasteful habits in a nation where the average household consumes an average of 5,878 kilowatt hours per year, about double the average in Latin America.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Daniel Wallis.; Editing by Philip Barbara and Christopher Wilson)


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