The Colombian president dismissed his country’s high command just days after a damning Human Rights Watch investigation accused military leaders of complicity in murdering civilians and then framing them as guerrillas it was reported on the 7 Jul 15. President Juan Manuel Santos replaced the heads of the three main branches of the armed forces, despite rejecting the report’s findings that military chiefs have escaped punishment for the so-called “false positive” extrajudicial killings. Mr Santos previously served as defence minister during the latter years of the scandal when some military units lured impoverished farmers and slum-dwellers to remote areas, killed them and presented them as battle dead from the left-wing FARC rebels. The murders were conducted to earn financial incentives and inflate body counts under pressure from commanders under Alvaro Uribe, the previous president and military strongman, at the height of the longest-running civil war in Latin America. Mr Santos insisted that his surprise decision to remove the heads of the army, air force and navy were routine staffing changes. But he announced the shake-up as his popularity ratings are falling sharply and amid a series of setbacks to peace talks with FARC leaders that he has been promoting. Some analysts believe that Mr Santos may have taken the drastic action in a bid to reduce fall-out from the scandal amid persistent questions about his role at the time of the “false positives” policy. HRW released a 95-page report in late June alleging that top Colombian military leaders were aware of “widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings” between 2002 and 2008 but have since risen through the ranks. The report, titled On Their Watch, presented evidence indicating that a number of generals and colonels at least knew or should have known – and may indeed have even ordered - the killings of civilians. Among those named in the report was General Jaime Alfonso Lasprilla, the army chief. Mr Santos announced that he was being replaced, along with Admiral Hernando Wills, the head of the country’s navy, and General Guillermo Leon, the air force commander. But the president has defended Gen Lasprilla and Gen Juan Pablo Rodriguez, the armed forces chief who was named in the report and remains in place. Mr Santos said both men had shown him documents which demonstrate that "there is not one single investigation" against them. HRW said that Colombian prosecutors are investigating more than 3,000 cases in which army troops allegedly murdered civilians and reported the deaths as combat fatalities, in order to bolster body counts in their war against armed guerrilla insurgencies. The “false positive” represented the “worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years”, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas Director, who claimed: “The army officials in charge at the time of the killings have escaped justice and even ascended to the top of the military command, including the current heads of the army and armed forces.” More than 800 members of the Colombian armed forces have been jailed since the "false positive" scandal first broke in 2008, but they are mostly low-ranking and no generals have so far been convicted. The rights group said that its investigation was based on reviews of prosecutors’ transcripts or recordings of testimony, including from soldiers who witnessed the atrocities. It accused the Colombian military of seeking to block investigations and threatening former soldiers who have revealed details about the killings. Mr Santos declared that although wrongdoing should be punished, the army should not be "tarnished". Senior officers named by HRW have said that they were unaware of the killings and the Colombian defence ministry has denied allegations of a cover-up and said that it was co-operating with investigators.
United States/Kenya – The US State Department has issued a travel alert (14 Jul 15) ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya later in Jul 15. The alert warned US citizens that they could be targeted due planned public events like the sixth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi in which President Obama is attending. "As with all large public events, there is the opportunity for criminal elements to target participants and other visitors," the travel alert read. "Large-scale public events such as this summit can also be a target for terrorists. The alert encouraged travellers to be on the lookout for possible terrorists and criminals. They were also encouraged to enrol in the Smart Traveller Enrolment Program (SMART) to enable them to receive pertinent safety and security information. The alert is set to expire on the 30 Jul 15 after the summit ends. The US has, however, acknowledged Kenya's counter-terrorism efforts following a series of attacks by the Somali armed group Al-Shabaab mainly in the North East and coastal region. The US leader is to visit Kenya for the first time as President and will attend the business conference scheduled to run from July 24 to 26. The summit will be co-hosted by the US and Kenya.
United States/Syria – U.S. intelligence agencies say there is a strong possibility the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on a large scale as part of a last-ditch effort to protect important Syrian government strongholds if rebel fighters and Islamists were about to overrun them. The American Homeland Security reported on the 6 Jul 15. U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that analysts and policy makers have been carefully examining all available intelligence in order to determine what types of chemical weapons the Assad regime might be able to deploy and what developments would trigger their use. Following a 21 August 2013 sarin gas attack by the Syrian military on Sunni suburbs of Damascus, in which more than 1,400 civilians were killed, President Bashar al-Assad, under a threat of a U.S. military strike, allowed international inspectors to remove the Syrian regime’s most toxic chemical weapons. U.S., European, and Israeli intelligence services say that after the most toxic chemicals were removed and more than a dozen chemical weapons production site dismantled, the Assad regime has developed and deployed a new type of chemical bomb filled with chlorine. U.S. intelligence officials say Assad may now decide to use these weapons on a larger scale in key strategic areas. U.S. officials told the Journal that they also suspect that the regime may have kept at least a small quantity of the chemical precursors needed to make nerve agents sarin or VX. Analysts note that the Assad regime has used chlorine-based chemical weapons on about two dozen occasions in 2014 and early 2015, but that if the regime were to employ sarin or VX weapons, the international reaction may be severe because these agents are more deadly than chlorine and were supposed to have been removed from Syria. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British army’s chemical-weapons unit, said: “Even if the regime had only one ton of VX left, that would be enough to kill thousands of people.” The intelligence is “being taken very seriously because he’s getting desperate” and because of doubts within the U.S. intelligence community that Assad gave up all of his deadliest chemical weapons, a senior U.S. official told the Journal. A new analysis by the U.S. intelligence community suggests Assad could use these chemical weapons as a weapon of last resort to protect key military and regime installations, or if the regime felt it had no other way to defend the core territory of its most reliable supporters, the Alawites. The analysis underlines what U.S. officials describe as growing signs of the Assad regime’s desperation on the battlefield. Since January, moderate rebels — some backed by the CIA — and Islamic State militants have been pushing the Syrian military out of areas controlled by the regime, leaving critical military bases, strategic roads, and supply lines vulnerable, particularly in the country’s northwest, south, and in the Kalamoun mountain range which straddles the Syria-Lebanon border. A worst-case scenario, the U.S. officials said, would be an open war between Islamists and Alawite-dominated communities near the Mediterranean coast, the home territory of the Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs. An additional worry, analysts say, is that the disintegration of the Syrian military has led not only to hasty retreats by Syrian units from important military bases in the country’s north, east, and south – but often to disorderly and panicky retreats, in which advanced weapon systems were abandoned, only to be seized by the anti-regime rebels. If the regime chemical weapons are not better guarded, there is a risk that they, too, will fall into rebels’ hands as the rebels continue to whittle away at territory held by the regime.
(Written by Paul Ashley see: http://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/chemical-weapons-syria-which-type/)