- Six Egyptian border guards killed - army spokesman
- U.S. soldier freed in Afghanistan, five Taliban prisoners leave Guantanamo
- Thai forces descend on central Bangkok to stifle coup protests
Posted: 31 May 2014 09:10 PM PDT
CAIRO (Reuters) - Six Egyptian soldiers from the border guard were killed when they were targeted by smugglers and "outlaws" during a patrol in a western part of the country, an army spokesman said on Saturday.
The six soldiers, who included an officer, were killed while carrying out a patrol in the western desert area of al-Wahat, the spokesman said in a statement on his official Facebook page late on Saturday.
The statement said the attack came in response to security forces' recent arrest of smugglers and confiscation of weapons, ammunition, cars and drugs.
Egypt has long desert borders with Sudan and Libya, where experts say weapons flows have increased since an uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Matt Driskill)
Posted: 31 May 2014 09:10 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The last U.S. prisoner of war held in Afghanistan was handed over to U.S. Special Operations forces on Saturday, in a dramatic swap for five Taliban detainees who were released from Guantanamo Bay prison and flown to Qatar.
Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been held for nearly five years by Afghan militants and his release, following years of on-and-off negotiations, suddenly became possible after harder-line factions of the Afghan Taliban apparently shifted course and agreed to back it, according to U.S. officials.
Bergdahl, 28, was handed over about 6 p.m. local time on Saturday, a senior official said. The U.S. forces, who had flown in by helicopter, were on the ground very briefly, said the officials, who would not specify the precise location of the handover.
A U.S. defence official said Bergdahl was able to walk and became emotional on his way to freedom. "Once he was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, 'SF?'" the official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces. "The operators replied loudly: 'Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time.' And at this point, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down."
President Barack Obama hailed the release in a brief appearance with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, in the White House Rose Garden, saying that "while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten".
Bergdahl was on his way to an American military hospital in Germany, a U.S. defence official said. Another defence official said it was expected that after treatment in Germany he would be transferred to a military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas.
U.S. special forces took custody of Bergdahl in a non-violent exchange with 18 Taliban members in eastern Afghanistan, senior U.S. officials said, adding that he was believed to be in good condition. Before leaving for Germany, he received medical care at Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan.
Within hours of his release, a second U.S. defence official said the five Taliban detainees, now formally in Qatari custody, had departed the Guantanamo prison. They were aboard a U.S. military C-17 aircraft and en route to the Gulf emirate.
The prisoner swap comes as America is winding down its long war in Afghanistan, and raises the question of whether this could lead to broader peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government for a negotiated end to the conflict.
"We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we don't have any promises to that effect," said one senior U.S. official deeply involved in the diplomacy.
TOUGH RECOVERY PROCESS
Bergdahl, who is from Idaho, was the only known missing U.S. soldier in the Afghan war that was launched soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to force the Taliban - accused of sheltering al Qaeda militants - from power.
He was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
His recovery after long years in captivity could be difficult. At the White House, Bergdahl's father began his words speaking a Muslim prayer and said his son was having difficulty speaking English. He asked for patience from the media as the family helped him re-adjust.
A U.S. defence official said Bergdahl would continue treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, including the start of his "reintegration process".
"That includes time for him to tell his story, decompress, and to reconnect with his family through telephone calls and video conferences," the official said.
Bergdahl's release could be a national security boost for Obama, whose foreign policy has been widely criticized in recent months. But some members of Congress have worried in the past over the potential release of the five Taliban detainees, particularly Mohammed Fazl, a "high-risk" detainee held at Guantanamo since early 2002. Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan's minority Shi'ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.
A U.S. defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified the five men as Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq. Pentagon documents released by the WikiLeaks organization said all five were sent to Guantanamo in 2002, the year the detention facility opened. They were classified as "high-risk" detainees "likely to pose a threat" to the United States, its interests and allies.
U.S. officials referred to the release of the Taliban detainees as a transfer and noted they would be subject to certain restrictions in Qatar. One of the officials said that would include a minimum one-year ban on them travelling outside of Qatar as well as monitoring of their activities.
Bergdahl's freedom followed a renewed round of indirect U.S.-Taliban talks in recent months, with Qatar acting as intermediary, the officials said.
The U.S. had been trying diplomacy to free Bergdahl since late 2010, but talks had been complicated, U.S. officials said, by an internal split between Taliban factions willing to talk to Americans and those staunchly opposed.
That changed in recent weeks - the exact time-frame is unclear - when Taliban hardliners reversed position, officials said.
The swap also comes days after Obama said he would keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, mostly to train Afghan forces, after NATO combat operations end at the end of 2014. The last soldiers, aside from a small presence at U.S. diplomatic posts, will leave at the end of 2016.
A U.S. official said he did not think there was a link with the announcement on Tuesday of the troop withdrawal timetable.
"This discussion predates the decision on troops," he said. "This is just a matter of things coming together with the help of the Qataris and the Taliban realizing that we were serious."
FAMILY, HOMETOWN CELEBRATE
The Bergdahl family was in Washington, D.C., when informed by Obama of the release. The parents said in a statement they were "joyful and relieved," adding: "We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son." Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, also began celebrating.
"Once we heard about it. We were pretty excited," said 17-year-old Real Weatherly, who was making signs on Saturday and blowing up balloons to hang outside the shop where she works.
The Afghan Taliban confirmed on Saturday it had freed Bergdahl. "This is true. After several rounds of talks for prisoners' swap, we freed U.S. soldier and our dear guest in exchange of five commanders held in Guantanamo Bay since 2002," a senior Taliban commander said.
The Taliban commander said Bergdahl had mostly been held in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan after what he termed his "dramatic" kidnapping from Afghanistan's Paktika province in June 2009.
Reuters first reported the potential deal involving the five Taliban detainees in December 2011.
While U.S. and Taliban envoys have met directly in the past, there were no direct U.S.-Taliban contacts during the most recent negotiations, U.S. officials said. Messages were passed via Qatari officials.
The final stage of negotiations, which took place in the Qatari capital, Doha, began one week ago, the U.S. officials said. Obama and Qatar's emir spoke on Tuesday and reaffirmed the security conditions under which the Taliban members would be placed, they said.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Roberta Rampton, Mark Hosenball, Will Dunham, David Brunnstrom, Elvina Nawaguna and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Frances Kerry, Peter Cooney and Alex Richardson)
Posted: 31 May 2014 08:25 PM PDT
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military government has readied thousands of troops and police to stop any protests on Sunday against its seizure of power, with shopping malls and some train stations closing in central Bangkok areas where protesters may congregate.
The military took over on May 22 after months of protests that had undermined the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, forcing ministries to close for weeks on end, hurting business confidence and causing the economy to shrink.
Protests against the coup have taken place in Bangkok most days since then although they have been small and brief.
On Sunday the authorities are anticipating that protesters will gather at several spots in the capital including an area in the centre where big malls are located. The military has banned political gatherings of five people or more.
Deputy police chief Somyot Poompanmoung told Reuters that 5,700 police and soldiers were being sent to these areas and rapid deployment units were ready to stop protests that spring up elsewhere.
Some top-end malls around the Ratchaprasong area have chosen to close or have reduced opening hours, and the operator of the Skytrain overhead rail network has shut several stations in the central area.
"It's a business centre and we need to protectively avoid any damage if authorities need to break up a gathering," Somyot said, adding mall owners could also find themselves in trouble with the authorities if protests took place on their premises.
On Saturday, as on the two previous days, the authorities effectively closed down the normally busy roads around Victory Monument, which was becoming a focal point for opposition to the coup. The area was flooded with police and troops but no protesters turned up.
In a televised address late on Friday, army chief and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military would need time to reconcile Thailand's antagonistic political forces and push through reforms.
He outlined a process beginning with three months of "reconciliation". A temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim prime minister and cabinet chosen in a second phase, taking about a year, he said. An election would come at an unspecified time after that.
The United States, European Union countries and others have called for rapid restoration of democracy.
At a conference in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel urged the Thai armed forces to release detainees, end censorship and "move immediately to restore power to the people of Thailand, through free and fair elections".
Australia scaled back relations with the Thai military on Saturday and banned coup leaders from travelling there. [ID:nL3N0OH06L]
At the heart of nearly a decade of political turmoil in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy is conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment dominated by the military, old-money families and the bureaucracy, and supporters of former telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who is adored by the poor in the north and northeast.
Thaksin, who was ousted as premier in a 2006 coup, is the brother of Yingluck and was considered the real power behind her government. He has chosen to live in exile since fleeing a 2008 conviction for abuse of power.
(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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