(Washington) (AP) – The United States shuttered its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort as fighting intensified between rival militias. Secretary of State John Kerry said “free-wheeling militia violence” prompted the move.
American personnel at the Tripoli embassy, which had already been operating with limited staffing, left the capital around dawn and traveled by road to neighboring Tunisia, with U.S. fighter jets and other aircraft providing protection, the State Department said. The withdrawal underscored the Obama administration’s concern about the heightened risk to American diplomats abroad, particularly in Libya where memories of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in the eastern city of Benghazi are still vivid.
The evacuation was accompanied by a new State Department travel warning for Libya urging Americans not to go to the country and recommending that those already there leave immediately. “The Libyan government has not been able to adequately build its military and police forces and improve security,” it said. “Many military-grade weapons remain in the hands of private individuals, including anti-aircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation.”
Speaking Saturday in Paris where he was meeting with other diplomats on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry said the U.S. remains committed to the diplomatic process in Libya despite the suspension of embassy activities there. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the evacuated employees will continue to work on Libyan issues in Tunis, elsewhere in North Africa and Washington.
“Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly,” Harf said. “Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions.”
The Pentagon said in statement that F-16 fighter jets and other U.S. aircraft provided security. “The mission was conducted without incident, and the entire operation lasted approximately five hours,” the statement said.
The State Department said embassy operations will be suspended until a determination is made that the security situation has improved. Tripoli has been embroiled for weeks in inter-militia violence that has killed and wounded dozens on all sides. The fighting has been particularly intense at the city’s airport.
“We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves,” Harf said.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, expressed gratitude for the work of the U.S. forces that helped in the evacuation.
The move marks the second time in a little more than three years that Washington has closed its embassy in Libya. In February 2011, the embassy suspended operations during the uprising that eventually toppled longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. After the formation of a transitional government in July 2011, the embassy reopened in September. Gadhafi was killed in October 2011.
The Obama administration has been particularly sensitive about security of U.S. government employees in Libya since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in the country’s second largest city of Benghazi. The attack killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The administration is still fending off criticism from Republicans and others that it did not take the needed steps to enhance security in Benghazi or evacuate the mission due to rising violence in that city in the months prior to the attack.
The Benghazi mission was abandoned after that attack and never reopened. The embassy In Tripoli has been operating with reduced staff since but has remained open even as the violence intensified.
On Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones appealed for fighting near the embassy to stop. “We have not been attacked but our neighborhood a bit 2 close to the action,” she tweeted. “Diplomatic missions 2 B avoided pls.” Jones had also tweeted about “heavy shelling and other exchanges” of fire in the vicinity of the embassy. Speculation about an evacuation had been rife at the State Department for more than a week.
Libya is now witnessing one of its worst spasms of violence since Gadhafi’s ouster. In Tripoli, the militias are fighting mostly for control of the airport. They are on the government’s payroll because authorities have depended on them to restore order.
The U.S. is the latest in a number of countries to have closed diplomatic operations in Libya. Turkey on Friday announced that it had shut its embassy and militia clashes in Benghazi have prompted the United Nations, aid groups and foreign envoys to leave.
In Tripoli, clashes near the international airport have forced residents to evacuate their homes nearby after they were hit by shells. On Friday, the official Libyan news agency LANA reported that explosions were heard early in the day near the airport area and continued into the afternoon.
The battle in Tripoli began earlier this month when Islamist-led militias – mostly from the western city of Misrata – launched a surprise assault on the airport, under control of rival militias from the western mountain town of Zintan. On Monday, a $113 million Airbus A330 passenger jet for Libya’s state-owned Afriqiyah Airways was destroyed in the fighting.
The rival militias, made up largely of former anti-Gadhafi rebels, have forced a weeklong closure of gas stations and government offices. In recent days, armed men have attacked vehicles carrying money from the Central Bank to local banks, forcing their closure.
Libyan government officials and activists have increasingly been targeted in the violence. Gunmen kidnapped two lawmakers in the western suburbs of Tripoli a week ago and on Friday armed men abducted Abdel-Moaz Banoun, a well-known Libyan political activist in Tripoli, according to his father.
An umbrella group for Islamist militias, called the Operation Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries, said in a brief statement on its Facebook page on Friday that “troops arrested Abdel-Moaz over allegations that he served under Gadhafi” and “instigated rallies against” the Islamists.
(Aspen, CO) (AP) – A series of unanswered questions about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shows the limits of U.S. intelligence gathering even when it is intensely focused, as it has been in Ukraine since Russia seized Crimea in March.
Citing satellite imagery, intercepted conversations and social media postings, U.S. intelligence officials have been able to present what they call a solid circumstantial case that the plane was brought down by a Russian-made SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
But they have not offered proof of what they say is their strong belief that the separatists obtained the sophisticated missile system from the Russian government. And they say they have not determined what, if any, involvement Russian operatives may have had in directing or encouraging the attack, which they believe was a mistaken attempt to hit a Ukrainian military aircraft
Moscow angrily denies any involvement in the attack; on Saturday the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of waging “an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies.”
U.S. officials said they still don’t know who fired the missile or whether Russian military officers were present when it happened. Determining that will take time, they said, if it’s possible at all. As one put it, “this isn’t ’24,’” referring to the TV series that often exaggerates the speed and capabilities of the American spying machine.
On Friday, a U.S. intelligence official noted that intelligence agencies had been “heavily involved” in tracking the flow of weapons from Russian to Ukrainian separatists, and that “available intelligence points to Russia as the source of the SA-11 that downed” the jetliner. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
Intelligence rarely meets the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required to convict in a U.S. court, said Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
“We know what happened,” he said in an interview while attending the Aspen Security Forum. “Russia is responsible for the shootdown of the jet, regardless of a few of the finer details we have yet to determine.”
The Malaysian airline investigation illustrates the challenges facing the $80 billion-a-year U.S. intelligence apparatus, which is spread thin as it grapples with an increasingly unpredictable world.
In the weeks after Russian troops took over the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, U.S. intelligence agencies ramped up collection in the area, adding satellite and eavesdropping capability, said current and former U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified information.
But spy satellites orbit the Earth and therefore don’t offer persistent, hovering surveillance the way drones do. The U.S. does not appear to have captured an image of the missile being fired, officials say, although sensors detected the launch and analysts were able to determine the trajectory.
Had an imagery sensor on a low orbiting satellite captured the launch, it could have produced intelligence-rich photos of plumes of smoke and the launch vehicle, said David Deptula, a retired Air Force general and expert on intelligence systems. A company called Skybox Imaging has been able to shoot short bursts of full motion video from its satellites, so presumably the military also has that capability.
But weapons can be hidden from satellites. Although U.S. analysts said they knew that tanks and other heavy weaponry were flowing from Russia to the separatists, officials said they were unaware that the separatists possessed working SA-11 missiles, which can hit aircraft flying at high altitudes, until after the passenger jet was shot down.
Credible human sources are the holy grail of intelligence gathering, but the CIA, which has a medium-sized station in Kiev, was not in a position to recruit informants quickly among the separatists in what is essentially a war zone, officials said.
What the CIA did instead was to step up its cooperation with Ukrainian intelligence, despite concerns that the Ukrainian service is penetrated by the Russians. Key portions of the intelligence cited by U.S. officials as showing that separatists were responsible for bringing down the plane were provided by the Ukrainians, including intercepts of conversations that were verified by U.S. analysts.
Officials said social media postings available to analysts in the U.S. have also helped. The Russian ministry slammed that line of evidence gathering, contending “the Washington regime is basing its contentions on anti-Russian speculation gathered from the Internet that does not correspond to reality.”
In recent days, journalists have been able to interview separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine, some of whom acknowledged responsibility for the downing. In a report Thursday, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera quoted a separatist who would not give his name as saying that he was told his unit had shot down a Ukrainian military plane, only to discover the bodies of civilians.
The CIA is gathering its own first-hand reports, officials said, but they have not shared them.
U.S. officials are loathe to discuss the fruits of the National Security Agency’s formidable eavesdropping capabilities, so it’s not known whether the NSA picked up any conversations among Russian officials suggesting Russian complicity. Even if the agency had such evidence, officials would be unlikely to alert the Russians by revealing it publicly, one senior U.S. official said.
However, officials say, the Russian military and intelligence agencies are extremely disciplined and well aware of U.S. electronic monitoring, which makes them a tough target.
U.S. officials have not expanded in public on the case they made in a briefing to reporters Tuesday about the passenger jet.
But on Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. has “new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine,” and that “Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions.”
U.S. officials said the information came from satellites and other technical means, not human sources.
(Jerusalem) (AP) – The Israeli military says three rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel despite a proposed extension of a humanitarian truce in the Gaza war.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group rejected Israel’s proposal to extend an original 12-hour lull by four hours, until midnight (2100 GMT) Saturday.
The military says the three rockets were fired more than an hour after the period for the initial lull had ended.
Meanwhile, the military warned residents of areas where there had been heavy fighting against returning there.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
Israel on Saturday extended a 12-hour humanitarian truce in the Gaza war by four hours, the longest lull in 19 days of Israel-Hamas fighting, as a Gaza health official said the overall number of Palestinians killed surpassed 1,000.
Thousands of Gaza residents who fled the violence streamed back to devastated border areas during Saturday’s truce to find large-scale destruction: fighting had pulverized scores of homes, wreckage blocked roads and power cables dangled in the streets.
In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, Siham Kafarneh, 37, sat on the steps of a small grocery, weeping. The mother of eight said the home she had spent 10 years saving up for and moved into two months earlier had been destroyed.
“Nothing is left. Everything I have is gone,” she said.
Across Gaza, more than 130 bodies were pulled from the rubble Saturday, officials said. In southern Gaza, 20 members of an extended family were killed before the start of the lull when a tank shell hit a building where they had sought refuge, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
Israel launched a major air campaign in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the Hamas-ruled territory in an operation it said was aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire and destroying cross-border tunnels used for attacks.
More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded over the past 19 days, al-Kidra said. Israeli strikes have destroyed hundreds of homes, including close to 500 in targeted hits, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee, according to Palestinian rights groups.
More than 160,000 displaced Palestinians have sought shelter at dozens of United Nations schools, an eight-fold increase since the start of Israel’s ground operation more than a week ago, the U.N. said.
Israel says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, including sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas, and blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way. Israel has lost 40 soldiers and two civilians, and a Thai worker also has been killed.
“There is no proof that any kind of gratuitous damage is being inflicted,” said Israeli legislator Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Israeli troops are “fighting with an enemy dug in within the civilian population, dug in underground or within the houses there,” he said, adding that “those are the consequences of such a fight.”
Later Saturday, the U.N. asked Israel to extend the humanitarian truce by 24 hours, according to a text message by an Israeli government official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it.
The Israeli Cabinet voted by phone to agree to a four-hour extension and to consider the U.N. request at a Cabinet meeting later Saturday, the message said. The cease-fire now is scheduled last until midnight (2100 GMT) with the extension.
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with European foreign ministers and later with foreign ministers from Qatar and Turkey to find ways of building on Saturday’s lull.
On Friday, Israel rejected a proposal by Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to halt fire for a week and to begin talks during this period on easing the border blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Hamas has said it would not halt fire until it won guarantees that the border blockade, enforced by Israel and Egypt, would be lifted.
Any new border arrangements for Gaza would likely give a role to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the main political rival of Hamas.
Hamas had seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, triggering the Gaza blockade by Israel and Egypt. However, Abbas, who heads the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, reached a power-sharing deal earlier this year with Hamas. Under the deal, a government of technocrats headed by Abbas was to prepare for new elections in the West Bank and Gaza.
Egypt wants forces loyal to Abbas to be posted on the Gaza side of the mutual border before considering open the Rafah crossing there, Gaza’s main gate to the world.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he and his counterparts from other nations are calling on both sides to negotiate a sustainable cease-fire.
Such a truce should meet Israeli security concerns, but also “the Palestinians’ expectations in terms of economic development and access to Gaza,” he said. “We are convinced of the need to involve the Palestinian Authority in achieving these objectives.”
For now, Israel appeared to be extending the truce on its own terms, saying it would continue to demolish Hamas military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border, as it has done in recent days.
The Israeli military said that through Saturday’s lull, troops uncovered four more tunnel shafts and said they would continue such activities.
There was no Hamas reaction to Israel’s extension. It was not clear if
A Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, speaking before the Israeli decision, said that the group would consider an extension of the truce as long as “it does not mean that we retreat from our known demands.”
The Israeli military said three mortar shells from Gaza landed in Israel after 8 p.m. Saturday. Israel’s military did not immediately respond.
(Kansas City) (AP) – A Kansas City, Kansas, clinic is offering a medication used to prevent infection in people at high risk of getting the AIDS virus.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration two years ago approved the HIV drug, Truvada, for HIV prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines in May recommending that doctors offer Truvada to people at substantial risk of HIV infection, such as those in a sexual relationship with someone who is HIV-positive, The Kansas City Star reported.
Sharon Lee, CEO of Family Health Care, a health care center in Kansas City, Kansas, is holding a weekly clinic at the health center for people who want to take the drug. The clinic is among the first of its kind in the nation, Lee said.
“We have a possibility presented to us of preventing new infections of HIV. This is one tool I think we should be using,” she said.
Truvada, however, has been slow to catch on.
“Doctors are uncomfortable prescribing it,” Lee said. Expense is another issue. Truvada costs about $13,000 annually. Not all insurance plans cover it, but the drug’s manufacturer offers some discounts.
Lee said unlike her health center, the new clinic won’t be operated as a safety net service. Patients will be charged about $300 for their first visit, which includes an HIV test and physical exam. Follow-up visits every three months will cost about $140.
“Maybe this will galvanize other providers to offer this treatment,” she said.
(Little Rock) (AP) – Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton has announced the formation of a group of military veterans who support him in his race for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.
Cotton spoke Saturday to about two dozen veterans at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial outside the state Capitol in Little Rock. He criticized President Barack Obama over foreign policy and troubles with veteran’s health care at Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics.
Cotton – who is a U.S. Army veteran – said he will be a voice for military veterans and their families in Arkansas.
Pryor campaign spokesman Erik Dorey said grassroots veterans are supporting Pryor’s re-election and that Pryor wrote or supported legislation to provide college tuition for veterans and to encourage companies to hire veterans.
(Jonesboro) (AP) – The Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board has granted certification for a new medical school on the campus of Arkansas State University.
The board on Friday approved certification for the New York Institute of Technology to offer three degrees at the Jonesboro campus: a doctor of osteopathic medicine, a master of science in medical/health care simulation and a master of science in neuromusculoskeletal sciences. The certification is contingent on the school receiving approval from a national accreditation association.
The Arkansas State University Board of Trustees agreed earlier this year to partner with the New York Institute of Technology to establish the school.
Officials hope to open the medical school in fall 2016, with a target class size of 115 students. The medical school has a projected startup cost of $10 million.
(Jonesboro) (AP) – Tickets are still available for opening day tours of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home next month.
The opening of Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess is scheduled for Aug. 16. Tours will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased in advance.
The home is Arkansas State University’s newest Heritage Site. The grand opening will feature a dedication ceremony at 10 a.m. ahead of the timed tours.
by Marilyn Odneal, Horticulture Adviser
(Mountain Grove) – Blaine Goocher of Sullivan, Mo., emailed a question concerning bitterness in cucumbers. He wrote, “My wife Mary likes to can various fruits and vegetables and is very good at it. We love the cucumbers fresh out of the garden, but on occasion sometimes they get bitter. It can be that the whole cucumber is bitter or sometimes it may be just parts of it. What causes the bitterness and how can we keep from throwing away – at times – a bunch of our harvest?”
Actually, I have some first-hand experience with cucumber bitterness. When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I worked at the Walnut Street Greenhouses where the vegetable breeding program had several projects developing improved cultivars of potatoes, carrots, onions and cucumbers. One of my jobs was to take a flat of cucumber seedlings that had just sprouted, sit down and take a little bite out of the each seedling leaf or cotyledon. If the cotyledon was bitter, the seedling was pulled out of the flat. When I was through “tasting” a flat of cucumber seedlings, the only seedlings that were left did not have the bitter trait. The bitter free seedlings were allowed to grow and produce seed for the breeding program.
Bitterness is a genetic trait that vegetable breeders avoid when they select. Cucurbitacin is the compound that causes bitterness in cukes. Wild cucumbers contain higher amounts of cucurbitacin and taste more bitter than the cultivated garden varieties that have been selected to be less bitter.
Cucurbitacin is found mainly in the leaves, stems and roots; however, it can spread to the fruit. It may not accumulate evenly in each cuke, as Goocher mentioned earlier. The bitterness is usually more concentrated in the stem end, where the fruit attaches to the vine, rather than the blossom end. It is higher in the peel and in the light green area just beneath the peel and not as common in the interior of the fruit. The bitterness may even vary from one fruit to the other.
Even though vegetable breeders and seed savers have been selecting for cucumbers that are not bitter, you may harvest bitter cucumbers from any plant at some time or other if the vine under any type of stress such as disease or insect infestation or lack of water. Cucumbers also have been observed to be more bitter during cool weather than in warm weather.
So keep your cucumber plants happy and stress free and you will you will be on the front lines of battling bitterness all summer long. If you taste some bitterness, keep cool as a cucumber and peel the fruit from the blossom end to the stem end, washing your knife between peels.
Direct comments or questions concerning this column to Marilyn Odneal via email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; write to Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711; or call (417) 547-7500. Visit our website at http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu.
(Washington) – Congressman Jason Smith discusses the VA in his newest Capitol Report:
On August 5 Missouri voters will head to the polls to vote for a variety of offices and will also be asked to vote on five possible amendments to the Missouri Constitution.
Below are the amendments and what your vote would mean in regard to the ballot language.
Constitutional Amendment 1 – “Right to Farm”
A “yes” vote would limit the ability of Missouri voters and legislators to place future restrictions on farming and other agricultural related practices. According to one of the authors of the bill, Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, “If passed, Amendment 1 would protect all farmers and ranchers in Missouri. From the individual raising a few calves or hens to a row crop farm consisting of thousands of acres, the rights and protections afforded by Amendment 1 will ensure Missouri’s farmers are able to continue their operations free from unreasonable intrusion from outside interests.”
A “no” vote would not amend the Missouri Constitution.
Constitutional Amendment 5 – Right to Bear Arms
A “yes” vote would amend the Missouri Constitution to include a statement that the right to keep and bear arms is an unalienable right. Amendment 5 also adds ammunition and gun accessories to this constitutionally protected status.
A “no” vote on Amendment 5 would not amend the Missouri Constitution.
Constitutional Amendment 7 – Sales Tax Increase for Transportation
A “yes” vote would amend the Missouri Constitution to enact a statewide sales tax increase of three-quarters of 1 percent to be used to fund state and local transportation projects over the next 10 years. After the 10-year sunset expires, a vote will take place automatically, allowing voters to renew the tax for 10 more years. A “yes” vote on Amendment 7 would produce $480 million annually for state projects and $54 million annually for local projects. A “yes” vote on Amendment 7 will help rebuild the state’s crumbling infrastructure and fund construction projects throughout Missouri. There will be no taxes imposed on food or prescription drugs.
A “no” vote would keep taxes at their current levels and would not fund the proposed construction projects.
Constitutional Amendment 8 – Veterans Lottery Ticket
A “yes” vote would amend the Missouri Constitution to create a Veterans Lottery Ticket. Any revenue from the sale of these new tickets would be used for projects and services related to veterans and would be administered by the Missouri Veterans Commission. Currently all revenue derived from the Missouri Lottery is constitutionally required to fund public education.
A “no” vote would not authorize the creation of a Veterans Lottery Ticket.
Constitutional Amendment 9 – Relating to Electronic Communications
A “yes” vote on Constitutional Amendment 9 would amend the Missouri Constitution with a declaration that the people shall be secure in their electronic communications and data from unreasonable searches and seizures as they are now likewise secure in their persons and homes.
A “no” vote would not amend the Missouri Constitution, thereby keeping the constitution silent regarding Missouri citizens’ rights to be secure in their electronic communications and data from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Search for Lynn Messer
I am asking for help on behalf of a colleague of mine from Jefferson City. Kerry Messer, a full-time lobbyist at the Capitol, has worked on behalf of Missouri families for more than 30 years. Whether or not a person agreed with Kerry on every issue, his passion and integrity are well-known and respected. Lynn, Kerry’s wife of 34 years, disappeared sometime before the morning of July 8, without a trace. She did not take any personal items with her, including a boot she had been wearing due to a foot injury. The Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff’s Department has been conducting a massive search effort, but with no success to date. Kerry has set up a Facebook page, located here or by visiting https://www.facebook.com/findlynnmesser, to help with the search. The website includes photos and flyers that can be distributed. If at all possible, please help solve this tragic mystery.
As always, I appreciate it when groups from around Missouri and from our community back home come to visit me at the Capitol, however during interim I may be in district. If you would like to arrange a time to come and visit me in Jefferson City, or if you ever have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.