Tag Archives: East

North Korea fighters fire missiles off North’s east coast, says South Korea military

South Korea says North Korean fighter jets have fired missiles off the North’s east coast.

A South Korean defence official says the North launched several fighter jets after it conducted suspected cruise missile tests on Tuesday morning. The official says the North Korean fighter jets fired an unspecified number of air-to-surface missiles toward the North’s eastern waters. 

The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

The launches, the latest in a slew of weapons launches by the North despite worries about a possible coronavirus outbreak in the country, came on the eve of the 108th birthday of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

They also came a day ahead of South Korean parliamentary elections.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the projectiles — presumed to be cruise missiles — were fired from the North’s eastern Kangwon province on Tuesday morning before flying toward the country’s eastern sea.

Talks with U.S. stalled

It said South Korea’s military was monitoring possible additional launches, but gave no further details, such as exactly how many projectile were launched or what type of projectiles they were.

In recent weeks, North Korea has carried out a series of short-range missile and other weapons tests amid stalled nuclear talks with the United States.

Most of the weapons tested were ballistic missiles or long-range artillery shells, and it’s unusual for North Korea to launch a cruise missile.

All the tested weapons were still short-range and didn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. A test of a missile capable of reaching the U.S. homeland would end North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on major weapons tests and likely completely derail nuclear diplomacy with the United States.

Some experts say North Korea likely used the latest weapons launches to bolster its striking capability against South Korea, which has been introducing U.S.-made stealth F-35 jets and other sophisticated conventional weapons systems in recent years. Others say the latest weapons tests were also aimed at shoring up internal unity in the face of U.S.-led sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

North Korea has repeatedly said there has been no coronavirus outbreak on its territory. But many foreign experts are skeptical of that claim and have warned that a coronavirus outbreak in the North could become a humanitarian disaster because of the country’s chronic lack of medical supplies and fragile health care infrastructure.

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Shia militias now a greater threat than ISIS in the Middle East, says Canadian commander

Iranian-backed Shia militias embedded alongside Iraqi security forces are now a bigger threat than the fragmented fighting power of former Islamic State extremists, a senior Canadian military commander told a House of Commons committee today.

Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau delivered the assessment while updating the all-party House of Commons defence committee on recent events and threats in the Middle East.

He said out of the roughly 70,000 Shia militia members under arms in Iraq, about 30,000 of them are hardcore fighters affiliated with Iran who could pose a danger.

“They are a very big concern,” Rouleau tesfied. “In fact, they’re my No. 1 concern. At the moment, relative to force protection, I am more concerned about that swath of Shiite militia groups than I necessarily am about Daesh (the Arabic term for ISIS) because Daesh has been defeated militarily.”

The remnant of the ISIS units hiding out in remote regions of northern Iraq and Syria, he said, “are reorganizing and spending time on themselves, more than they are spending time on attack planning.”

Over the last two weeks, CBC News has spoken to several senior Canadian and anti-ISIS coalition commanders who share Rouleau’s assessment and note that the militias have “yet to extract their pound of flesh” for the targeted killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the secretive Quds Forces, by the U.S. in early January.

Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iranians fired ballistic missiles into two Iraqi bases used by coalition forces, including Canadians, but have thus far taken no further retaliatory action.

The militias became highly integrated with Iraqi forces during the battles to expel ISIS from the northern part of the country, including the prolonged fight for Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.

“These Shiite militia groups we’re concerned about are very well equipped,” Rouleau told MPs. “They have tubed artillery. They have multiple launch rocket systems and armed UAVs. They have air defence equipment.” 

Rather than being a ragtag force, the fighters are like armed as though they are “a state military,” he said.

Canada, with roughly 500 troops in Iraq alongside the U.S.-led coalition, is keeping a close intelligence eye on the various groups to determine what their intentions might be.

“They have been muted since the attack and the U.S. threats that — if a U.S. or coalition service member dies at the hands of these group — there will be an outsized response,” said Rouleau, who is responsible for all military operations, foreign and domestic.

Ongoing crises in Iran, including the COVID-19 outbreak and the fallout from punishing economic sanctions, are also helping to mitigate any possible retaliation, he added.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he wondered how much support there was for the Shia militias within the Iraqi government itself.

Sandra McCardell, director general of the Middle East Bureau at Global Affairs Canada, told the committee that Iraq, prior to the Soleimani killing, had been engulfed in anti-Iranian, anti-corruption protests.

“They were frustrated and resentful of the foreign influence in their country,” she testified. “I think what we’ve seen more recently, particularly since the killing of Qasem Soleimani, is that there has been pressure to again return to sectarian camps.”

After the 2003 U.S.invasion, Iraq descended into a sectarian bloodbath between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

“How we’ll go from here remains to be seen,” McCardell said.

Rouleau said that in the aftermath of the Iranian missile attack on Erbil, where Canadian special forces have conducted operations out of since 2014, consideration is being given to consolidating Canadian bases in Iraq.

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Europe, Middle East scramble to limit spread of coronavirus

The latest:

  • WHO chief says the coronavirus has “pandemic potential,” but for now there is no “uncontained global spread.”
  • Iran’s health minister says 12 have died of COVID-19, but lawmaker in Qom cites much higher number, saying there have been 50 deaths.
  • Italian news agency reports at least 229 confirmed cases and 7 deaths.
  • South Korean health workers plan to test everyone in Daegu with cold-like symptoms — about 28,000 people.
  • China’s national health commission says the coronavirus has infected more than 77,600 people and killed more than 2,600 — most in Hubei. 
  • Read why some experts are questioning China’s coronavirus claims.

The coronvarius took aim at a broadening swath of the globe Monday, with officials in Europe and the Middle East scrambling to limit the spread of an outbreak that showed signs of stabilizing at its Chinese epicentre but posed new threats far beyond.

In Italy, authorities set up roadblocks, called off soccer matches and shuttered sites including the famed La Scala opera house. In Iran, the government said 12 people had died nationwide, while five neighbouring countries — Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Afghanistan — reported their first cases of the virus, with all those infected having links to Iran.

Across the world, stock markets and futures tumbled on fears of a global economic slowdown due to the expanding spread of the virus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank more than 1,000 points, its biggest decline in two years.

The number of people sickened by COVID-19 topped 79,000 globally, and wherever it sprung up, officials rushed to try to contain it.

“The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption,” said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, yes,” Tedros said, but “for the moment we’re not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus.”

“I have spoken consistently about the need for facts not fear. Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts but it may certainly cause fear,” Tedros said, speaking in Geneva.

He said a WHO expert team currently in China believes the virus plateaued there between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has declined since. The team also said the fatality rate in China was between two and four per cent in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and 0.7 per cent outside of Wuhan.

Clusters of the virus continued to emerge outside China, including in Qom, an Iranian city where the country’s semiofficial ILNA news agency cited a lawmaker as reporting a staggering 50 people had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The country’s Health Ministry rejected that, insisting the death toll remained at 12, with total infections numbering 61.

People wearing protective masks shop at a pharmacy in the Iranian capital Tehran on Monday. Iran has been scrambling to contain the coronavirus outbreak since it announced the first two deaths in the city of Qom last week. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The conflicting reports raised questions about the Iranian government’s transparency concerning the scale of the outbreak. But even with the lower toll of 12, the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus is higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.

Asked about the spike in cases in Iran, WHO’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, cautioned that in the first wave of infections reported from a country, only the deaths may be being picked up and therefore be over-represented. “The virus may have been there for longer than we had previously suspected,” he said.

Ryan said a WHO team would be arriving in Iran on Tuesday and in Italy on Monday.

“What we don’t understand yet in COVID-19 are the absolute transmission dynamics,” Ryan said, noting that in China there’s been a significant drop in cases. “That goes against the logic of pandemic.”

Tourists wearing protective masks visit the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, on Sunday during the usual period of the Carnival festivities, which were cancelled for the last two days due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in northern Italy. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities in Iran closed schools across much of the country for a second day Monday. Movie theatres and other venues were shuttered through at least Friday, and daily sanitizing of public buses and the Tehran metro, which is used by some three million people, was begun.

Recognition grew that the virus was no longer stemming only from contact with infected people in China.

“Many different countries around the world may be sources of COVID-19 infections,” said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. “This makes it much harder for any one country to detect and contain.”

China still has the vast majority of cases, but as it records lower levels of new infections, attention has shifted to new fronts in the outbreak. Chief among them is South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in placed the country under a red alert, the highest level, allowing for “unprecedented, powerful steps” to stem the crisis.

Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a National Assembly on Monday in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Beyond expanding a delay to the start of the school year from the hardest-hit area of Daegu nationwide, though, it remains to be seen how far the government will go. A Chinese-style lockdown of Daegu — a city of 2.5 million people that is the country’s fourth largest — appeared unlikely, even as signs of the response to a broadening problem could be seen nearly everywhere in the nation.

More than 600 police officers in Daegu fanned out in search of hundreds of members of a church that has been identified as a source for hundreds of infections. The country’s National Assembly was temporarily closed Monday as workers sterilized its halls. At shops and food stalls in the capital of Seoul, a misty fog surrounded crews in protective suits who sprayed disinfectants.

“The changes have been dramatic,” said Daegu resident Nah Young-jo, who described an increasingly empty city of few passersby and closed restaurants.

South Korean officials recommended that courts consider postponing trials of cases not deemed urgent, while Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul threatened tough penalties for those who defy a ban on rallies in major downtown areas. Work schedules for city employees in Seoul were staggered to reduce crowding on subways, where packed cars could become petri dishes if an infected passenger were aboard.

People in traditional Korean hanbok dresses wear face masks as they visit Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul on Sunday. (AFP via Getty Images)

“If we fail to effectively prevent the spread of the virus into the local communities, there would be a large possibility [that the illness] spreads nationwide,” warned Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice-minister of health.

Health workers said they planned to test every citizen in Daegu who showed cold-like symptoms, estimating around 28,000 people would be targeted.

In Italy, where 229 people have tested positive for the virus and seven have died, police manned checkpoints around a dozen quarantined northern towns as worries grew across the continent.

Austria temporarily halted rail traffic across its border with Italy. Slovenia and Croatia, popular getaways for Italians, were holding crisis meetings. Schools were closed, theatre performances were cancelled and even Carnival celebrations in Venice were called off.

Tourists wearing protective facemasks visit the Piazza San Marco in Venice on Monday. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP via Getty Images)

It was a sign of how quickly circumstances could change in the widening COVID-19 scare. Italy had imposed more stringent measures than other European countries after the outbreak began, barring flights beginning Jan. 31 to and from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Until last week, Italy had reported just three cases of infection.

“These rapid developments over the weekend have shown how quickly this situation can change,” the health commissioner for the European Union, Stella Kyriakides, said in Brussels. “We need to take this situation of course very seriously, but we must not give in to panic, and, even more importantly, to disinformation.”

Mainland China reported 508 new cases of the illness on Tuesday, raising its total to 77,658. It also announced 71 new deaths for a total of 2,663.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian expert who was part of the initial team deployed to China, is scheduled to provide more detail about the team’s finding during a news conference Tuesday.

WATCH: Infectious disease expert talks about efforts to contain coronavirus

Infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Daszak says coronavirus is ‘more or less’ a pandemic right now.  9:30

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Palestinians angrily reject Trump’s Middle East peace plan

U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan Tuesday, calling for the creation of a State of Palestine with its capital in portions of east Jerusalem, saying it is a “win-win” opportunity for both Israel and the Palestinians.

It was soundly rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who dismissed it as nonsense. 

“We will not kneel and we will not surrender,” Abbas said, adding that the Palestinians would resist the plan through “peaceful, popular means.”

The plan ends speculation over whether Trump’s administration, in preparing a proposal without input from Palestinian leaders, would abandon a “two-state resolution” to the conflict.

Trump, releasing the plan before a pro-Israel audience at the White House with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his side, acknowledged that he has done a lot for Israel, but he said he wanted the deal to be a “great deal for the Palestinians.” Trump said the deal is a “historic opportunity” for Palestinians to achieve an independent state of their own.

President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Netanyahu called the plan ‘remarkable.’ (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Trump said Jerusalem would remain the “undivided” capital of Israel, with Netanyahu later remarking that the plan envisions the Palestinian capital being located in Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The plan more than doubles the territory currently under Palestinian control, although it also recognizes Israeli sovereignty over major settlement blocs in the West Bank, something to which the Palestinians will almost certainly object.

Netanyahu’s spokesperson said two hours later that the Israeli leader will ask his cabinet on Sunday to approve his plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett called for the immediate annexation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank in response to the Trump peace plan.

Bennett, a hawkish member of the religious nationalist Yemina party, said the proposal offers Israel “an opportunity to determine the territory of our country” and “include all the Israeli settlements in the land of Israel within the sovereign state of Israel.”

He said that Israel “cannot wait until after the elections, and won’t be satisfied with partial sovereignty — take it all now.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, third from left, soundly rejected Trump’s peace plan, calling nonsense. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)

At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where his Palestinian Authority is headquartered, Abbas said “a thousand no’s” to the plan.

“After the nonsense that we heard today we say a thousand no’s to the ‘deal of the century,'” Abbas said — borrowing Trump’s description of the plan.

He said the Palestinians remain committed to ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a state with its capital in east Jerusalem.

‘A cycle of terrorism’

Trump said the Palestinians “deserve a chance to achieve their extraordinary potential.”

“Palestinians have been trapped in a cycle of terrorism, poverty and violence, exploited by those seeking to use them as pawns to advance terrorism and extremism.”

The plan calls for a four-year freeze in new Israeli settlement construction, during which time details of a comprehensive agreement would be negotiated. However, it was not immediately clear if the freeze could be extended if a final deal is not concluded in the four years.

Trump said he sent a letter to Abbas to tell him that the territory that the plan has set aside for a new Palestinian state will remain open and undeveloped for four years.

“It’s going to work,” Trump said. “If they do this, it will work. Your response to this historic opportunity will show the world to what extent you are ready to lead the Palestinian people to statehood.”

Netanyahu was effusive in his praise of the plan.

“You have been the greatest friends Israel has ever had in the White House,” he told Trump, adding “it’s not even close.”

Netanyahu said previous efforts by American officials to broker peace in the region “did not strike right balance between Israel’s national security and interests and Palestinian aspiration of self-determination.”

Netanyahu praised the efforts of White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, but at least one Democratic senator criticized Kushner for abandoning traditional U.S. policy in the region. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The 50-page political outline goes further in concessions to the Palestinians than many analysts had believed was likely. However, it would require them to accept conditions they have been previously unwilling to consider, such as accepting West Bank settlements. It builds on a 30-page economic plan for the West Bank and Gaza that was unveiled last June and which the Palestinians have also rejected.

Under the terms of the “peace vision” that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been working on for nearly three years, the future Palestinian state would consist of the West Bank and Gaza, connected by a combination of above-ground roads and tunnels, according to the officials.

Netanyahu praised Kushner’s “resolve” in helping craft the plan. Both Netanyahu and his main political challenger in March elections, Benny Gantz, had signed off on the plan. 

The event comes as Trump’s impeachment trial continues in the U.S. Senate and Netanyahu facing criminal corruption charges.  

In the run-up to the March 2 election, Netanyahu has called for annexing parts of the West Bank and imposing Israeli sovereignty on all its settlements there. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Jordan Valley in particular is considered a vital security asset.

Timing of announcement

“You, Mr. President, recognize that Israel must have sovereignty in the Jordan Valley,” said Netanyahu.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration State Department official on Middle East policy, told CBC News on Tuesday it’s easy to be cynical about the timing of the announcement, given the domestic troubles swirling around both Trump and Netanyahu.

“There’s no reason this plan couldn’t be put out … after the next Israeli election, or a month ago,” said Goldenberg. “Why it’s happening this week, after three years, is incredibly questionable.

“The obvious reason is it’s a tool for distraction.”

A general view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Michmash, seen last week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been flirting with plans to annex the Jordan Valley as well as Jewish settlements across the West Bank, a move popular with his nationalist base but one long warned could set off renewed Palestinian violence. (Oded Balilty/The Associated Press)

Security responsibility for the Jordan Valley in the proposal would remain in Israel’s hands for the foreseeable future but could be scaled back as the nascent Palestinian state builds its capacity, under the terms of the plan, which says that statehood will be contingent on the Palestinians meeting international governance criteria.

U.S. officials had said they expected negative responses from the Palestinians, as well as Turkey and Iran, but were hopeful that Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have peace treaties with Israel, would not reject it outright. The officials said they expected Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to cautiously welcome the plan.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, backed by Iran, called on Arab states to not be complicit in a “deal of shame” that would “rob the Palestinian people of the right to their land.”

Jordan meanwhile warned against any Israeli “annexation of Palestinian lands” and reaffirmed its commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, which would include all the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi warned of “the dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures, such as annexation of Palestinian lands.”

Egypt urged Israelis and Palestinians to “carefully study” the plan and said it appreciates the administration’s efforts.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that it favours a solution that restores all the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people through establishing an “independent and sovereign state on the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut was quick to weigh in on the proposal in a multi-post Twitter thread, calling it “a total abandonment of decades of U.S. Middle East policy” that “risks real violence and massive destabilization inside places like Jordan.”

Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s president, said on social media: “This is a deal between the Zionist regime [Israel] and America. Interaction with Palestinians is not on its agenda.”

“This is not a peace plan but a plan of imposition and sanctions,” she continued.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and East Jerusalem as parts of an independent Palestinian state.

Settlement activity

The international community considers both territories to be occupied and all settlements illegal. But the Trump administration, in a break from its predecessors and the rest of the world, has taken a much friendlier approach and in November declared it does not consider settlements illegal.

Liberal Israeli group Peace Now called the plan “as detached from reality as it is eye-catching” and said it will not bring stability to the region.

“The plan’s green light for Israel to annex isolated settlements in exchange for a perforated Palestinian state is unviable and would not bring stability,” the organization said in a statement issued after the president’s announcement.

Trump has reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by siding more blatantly with Israel. Prior to the statement on settlements, the administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pushed ahead to move the U.S. Embassy there. He’s also closed Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and cut funding to Palestinian aid programs.

The policies have proven popular among Trump’s evangelical and pro-Israel supporters.

The Palestinians have refused to even speak to Trump for many months, saying he’s biased in favour of Israel, and they are calling on Arab representatives to reject the Tuesday event at the White House.

“Diplomacy requires actually really hearing both sides and understanding precisely what they want, what their needs are and trying to come up with solutions that work for both sides,” said Goldenberg, who now works with the think-thank Center for a New American Security.

“That is literally impossible to do when you’re not having conversations with one side.”

‘Palestine is not for sale’

Thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza City ahead of the announcement.

The protesters burned pictures of Trump and Netanyahu, and raised a banner reading “Palestine is not for sale.”

Palestinian demonstrators burn a poster depicting Trump and Israeli Netanyahu during a protest against the U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Rafah in southern Gaza. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

During the rally, Gaza’s Hamas rulers expressed rare support for Abbas of the rival Fatah movement, welcoming his call for a broad meeting of Palestinian factions.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, seized Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007. Several attempts to reconcile the two factions have failed, which many say has weakened the Palestinian cause.

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Where Canadian military and police missions are in the Middle East right now

Experts are warning that Iran might retaliate violently after the United States killed its military leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Here’s a list of Canadian deployments in the Middle East, according to the Department of National Defence:

1. Operation Impact

Up to 850 people serve on Operation Impact. Deployed to multiple locations in Iraq, Canadian military members are training and advising Iraqi security forces to improve their ability to fight the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. On November 26, 2019, Canadian Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan officially assumed command of the NATO mission in Iraq from Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.

Besides training, Operation Impact members work on air transportation and intelligence.

2. Operation Calumet

55 people serve on Operation Calumet. Based in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, this is a long-term mission to keep peace between Egypt and Israel. Canada provides support to observer helicopters and airplanes and has a handful of senior military police assigned to keep order and discipline among the multinational force.

3. Operation Foundation

About 16 members serve on Operation Foundation. Staff officers are assigned to several headquarters overseeing military missions in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, including U.S. forces in Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan.

4. Operation Artemis

Seven members serve on Operation Artemis. It’s part of a naval effort currently led by Australia to patrol waters off the Middle East, interdicting smugglers, pirates and militants targeting shipping. Canada’s contribution to Operation Artemis ebbs and flows and sometimes includes multiple navy ships and air components; as of last November, it consisted of seven people based on land in Bahrain.

5. Operation Jade

Four officers serve on Operation Jade — military observers assigned to a UN mission with groups in Lebanon and the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. This was the United Nations’ first peacekeeping mission, beginning in 1948.

6. Police officers

According to the RCMP, three Canadian police officers are also serving in Iraq, training Iraqi officers and helping build leadership capacity.

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No substantial rain expected along Australia’s fire-ravaged east coast for 3 months

Official weather forecasts for Australia out on Thursday showed no substantial rains for at least three months, providing grim news as firefighters battle to get more than 100 bush fires raging across the east coast under control.

Wildfires in New South Wales and Queensland states have killed four people, destroyed hundreds of homes and wiped out a million hectares of farmland and bush over the past week.

The fires have been fuelled by tinder-dry conditions after three years of drought that experts say has been exacerbated by climate change, a factor that has sparked a sharp political debate in recent days.

Firefighters have said the blazes will burn for weeks without significant rainfall.

Danny Wearne surveys damage to his property on Wednesday in Rainbow Flat, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said there is just a 25 per cent chance that the country’s east coast will receive average rainfall between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28.

Stoking the threat, BOM said there is more than 80 per cent chance that temperatures will exceed average levels over the next three months.

Death toll hits 4

More immediately, Rural Fire Service NSW deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said fatigued firefighters face another challenging few days.

“Conditions are starting to warm up tomorrow, into the weekend and then heating up early next week, a return to more gusty conditions. We’re in for the long haul,” Rogers told Australia’s Channel 7.

The death toll from the fires rose to four on Thursday after police reported the body of a man was discovered in NSW bushland that had been ravaged by fire.

Firefighters battle a fire in Hillville, Australia, on Wednesday. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring this year has caught many by surprise and stoked an increasingly acrimonious political debate about climate change.

PM bats away questions about climate change

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly batted away questions on that issue during the current crisis, drawing criticism from climate activists and opposition lawmakers.

A group of former fire chiefs on Thursday said the government’s refusal to discuss climate change issues were impeding preparations for large-scale fires.

Greg Mullins, a former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner, said he and 23 other fire and emergency chiefs had been trying to have a meeting with Morrison since April because they “knew that a bush fire crisis was coming.”

Instead, he said current fire chiefs had been locked out of discussions and were “not allowed” to mention climate change.

“This government fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change,” Mullins told reporters in Sydney.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said earlier in the week that linking the fires to the government’s support of the coal industry was “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies.”

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Behind Pozuelo and Laryea, TFC set to face reigning champion Atlanta in East final

With a salary of $ 3.8 million US in 2019, Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo is looking like a bargain for Toronto FC. But Toronto-born fullback Richie Laryea, at the MLS-minimum $ 56,250, is a downright steal.

Both are making their mark at different ends of TFC’s salary scale.

Pozuelo, proving again he is New York City FC’s kryptonite, scored both goals in TFC’s dramatic 2-1 win over top-seeded NYCFC in the Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday. Laryea, meanwhile, triggered the winning penalty with a marauding run off the bench.

After missing the playoffs last season, Toronto is now one win away from its third MLS Cup final in four years. TFC lost to Seattle in a penalty shootout in 2016 and beat the Sounders in 2017.

Fourth-seeded Toronto advances to play at No. 2 Atlanta, the defending MLS champion which defeated No. 3 Philadelphia 2-0 in the other Eastern semifinal on Thursday, on Oct. 30.

Toronto lost 2-0 at Atlanta on May 8 and won 3-2 at BMO Field on June 26 — thanks to a Pozuelo penalty kick in stoppage time. The spot kick came after Laryea, driving towards goal, was fouled in the box.

Pozuelo, 28, and Laryea, 24, are both newcomers to Toronto this season.

Pozuelo arrived in March to much fanfare as a designated player — in the wake of off-season exits by Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez — after protracted exit negotiations with his Belgian club KRC Genk. Laryea, originally drafted by Orlando, signed later that month with Toronto issuing a two-paragraph release.

Their salaries reflect the hype, or lack thereof.

Pozuelo is the seventh highest-paid player in MLS, according to the MLS Players Association. Teammates Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore rank No. 2 and 3 at $ 6.5 million and $ 6.3 million, respectively.

Laryea is the lowest-paid TFC player, No. 32 on the club list.

Pozuelo landed with a bang, scoring two goals and adding an assist in a 4-0 win over New York City FC on March 29.

“I think today we showed we have a good team,” he said in his post-game interview Wednesday.

Toronto has converted Laryea, a former midfielder, into a fullback. Working hard off the field to learn the position, he has pushed Brazil’s Auro for a starting job.

Laryea draws praise from Bradley

Laryea has a competitive streak that makes him a welcome presence when push comes to shove. And with the ball at his feet, he can cause havoc.

“His ability to move with the ball, to put guys on the wrong foot, to go by guys, that part is special,” said Bradley. “And he continues to make big plays for us whether it’s as a sub or a starter. I’m so happy for him, so proud of him.”

Laryea was introduced in the 78th minute Wednesday at Citi Field.

“I just came in looking to bring a spark and help change the game, because the guys fought really hard for 80 minutes before I came in,” he said.

He did just that, helped by Pozuelo. The Spaniard spotted him streaking down the right flank and fed him a pass that left two NYCFC defenders in no-man’s land. Laryea then danced around fullback Ronald Matarrita and accelerated into the New York penalty box where Matarrita caught up with him as he made the turn towards goal and chopped him down to trigger the decisive penalty.

WATCH | Pozuelo leads TFC into conference final: 

Alejandro Pozuelo scored both of Toronto FC’s goals as the Reds beat NYCFC 2-1. 1:40

Moved farther forward in the playoffs due to Altidore’s quad strain, the slick Spaniard has pulled the strings up front. Not a conventional No. 9, he serves more like a basketball centre when pushed up front — he can turn and strike himself or bring someone else into the play while drawing defensive attention.

“He was great on the night,” said coach Greg Vanney. “He held up the ball for us, he brought people into the play. He moved around, he fought for things. He helped lead us defensively.”

Pozuelo led the team with 12 goals and 12 assists during the regular season, with three of those coming against NYCFC. Wednesday made it five.

Pozuelo did dip slightly in form during the regular season, due perhaps to his extended campaign in Europe and North America combined with Toronto moving him around the field.

His favourite position is in the middle, slightly behind the striker, where he can move around the field and work his magic. His recent role has allowed him to do much of that.

Pozuelo is quick to praise Laryea.

“An amazing player,” he said. “When he comes to the pitch, he always give the maximum. We know he has a lot of good quality. He helps the team a lot. For me, he is one of the best players on this team.”

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Pozuelo scores on 90th-minute penalty to lift TFC into East final

Alejandro Pozuelo converted a 90th-minute penalty to give Toronto FC a 2-1 win over New York City FC in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday.

Fullback Ronald Matarrita took Richie Laryea down in the 88th minute as the substitute slashed his way into the penalty box and Pozuelo slotted the spot kick down the middle with nonchalant ease in the 90th minute.

It was Pozuelo’s second goal of the game and his fourth goal against NYCFC this season. He went 2-of-3 from the penalty spot against the New Yorkers. Quentin Westberg made a diving save in stoppage time to preserve the win.

After Pozuelo took advantage of another New York City FC blunder early in the second half for a 1-0 Toronto lead, NYCFC finally came to life and launched attack after attack. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi tied it up in the 69th minute when Toronto was caught ball-watching in its own end.

Despite missing the injured Jozy Altidore, Toronto was more creative in front of goal but failed to take advantage in the first half. That changed in the 47th minute when NYCFC got an attempted clearance deep in its own half horribly wrong.

Toronto’s Brazilian fullback Auro hoofed the ball into the NYCFC end after a throw-in and the home side tried to clear the ball with three headers that went from bad to worse to complete disaster.

Defender Maxime Chanot, a French-born Luxembourg international, committed the finale gaffe with an attempted back-header to goalkeeper Sean Johnson that went straight to Pozuelo, who accepted the gift and then beat Johnson with a left-footed shot.

New York, which had the second-best regular-season record in the league, went into high gear after the goal and pulled even in the 69th minute.

After a NYCFC throw-in in the Toronto end, Maximiliano Moralez sent a cross to the far post and spotted Tajouri-Shradi making a late run. Jonathan Osorio tried to get to the unmarked Tajouri-Shradi but was too late as the Swiss-born Libyan international beat Westberg.

Toronto will play either No. 2 Atlanta or No. 3 Philadelphia, who meet Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in the conference final Oct. 20.

Toronto takes down top seed

Fourth-seeded Toronto was playing on just three days rest after a 5-1 extra-time win Saturday over visiting D.C. United in a first-round playoff matchup.

Altidore, a game-day decision with a quad strain, did not make the matchday 18 for the second match in a row. Centre back Omar Gonzalez, who sat out the D.C. contest with a hamstring issue, started on the bench.

NYCFC, in contrast, was well-rested having secured a first-round bye by virtue of topping the Eastern Conference. The New Yorkers, who finished 14 points ahead of Toronto in the regular season, last played Oct. 6 in the regular-season finale.

The game was moved some 12 kilometres from Yankee Stadium to Citi Field, home of the Mets, because of the Yankees’ playoff run. The Yankees were eliminated by Houston on Saturday but the decision to shift the MLS contest had already been made.

Toronto may have welcomed the move, given it is 0-2-4 all-time in regular-season play at the home of the Yankees. TFC did humble NYCFC 5-0 there in the 2016 playoffs, however.

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TFC pulls in front of Impact for final playoff spot in East

Gustavo Bou scored a late goal, Matt Turner had five saves, and the New England Revolution played Toronto FC to a 1-1 draw on Saturday night.

Bou took a pass from Diego Fagundez at the corner of the area, beat a defender 1-on-1 and fired a rolling right-footer into the net to make it 1-1 in the 86th minute. Bou, a 29-year old who signed with the Revolution on July 10, has six goals in eight MLS appearances.

New England (10-9-9) is unbeaten in its last four games and has just one loss — 2-0 at LAFC on Aug. 3 — since May 8.

Nicolas Benezet, making his fourth MLS appearance, scored from point-blank range to give Toronto (10-10-8) a 1-0 lead in the 74th minute. Nick DeLeon, who came on in the 63rd, played a low cross to the back post where Marco Delgado’s first-timer was deflected by goalkeeper Matt Turner but Benezet headed the rebound into an empty net. 

WATCH | Toronto, New England play to draw:

Toronto FC and the New England Revolutions each picked up a vital point in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race as they played to a 1-1 draw. 1:10

Meanwhile, Ola Kamara scored twice in the first half as D.C. United blanked the Impact 3-0 to put a massive dent in Montreal’s playoff chances.

Paul Arriola also scored for D.C. United (11-10-9), who snapped a three-game losing skid without suspended captain and leading scorer Wayne Rooney. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid made four saves for his 10th clean sheet of the season.

Evan Bush conceded three goals on four shots for the slumping Impact (11-15-4), who have lost eight of their last 11 MLS matches.

The win propelled D.C. into fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points. Montreal fell below the playoff line into eighth with 37 points and four games left to play this season — three of those are at home.

Seventh-place Toronto FC lead the Impact by one point and have two games in hand.

Rough start for Montreal

It was a disastrous first half for the Impact, who conceded three goals in a 12-minute span that ended with a chorus of boos and jeers from the 18,285 fans in attendance at Saputo Stadium.

Replacing the suspended Rooney up top, Kamara got the visitors on the board in the 20th minute. After a Junior Moreno free kick ricocheted off Orji Okwonkwo, the ball fell right to an unmarked Kamara in the box for the opener.

WATCH | Impact lose ground with loss to United:

D.C. United scored three goals just over 12 minutes apart as the blanked the Montreal Impact 3-0. 1:00

The visitors made it 2-0 three minutes later when Montreal’s Samuel Piette headed Hamid’s towering goal kick right into Arriola’s path. The winger took the ball in his stride and beat Bush with a left-footed shot into the bottom corner for his sixth of the season.

Another poorly defended set piece sunk the Impact when D.C. United scored off a Felipe corner kick in the 32nd minute. Defender Frederic Brillant headed the ball across the box to Kamara, who headed it past Bush for his fourth career goal against Montreal.

The match was reminiscent of last year’s crucial meeting between Montreal and D.C. at the end of September. United won that match 5-0, which ultimately led to the Impact missing the playoffs.

Following a 0-0 draw at Audi Field earlier this season, Montreal has now gone 355 minutes without scoring against D.C. United.

Slide continues for Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps gave up goals about 16 minutes apart in the first half to drop a 3-1 decision to New York City FC Saturday night, losing their third Major League Soccer game in eight days.

Alexandru Mitrita scored one goal and set up another for New York City (14-5-8), which won its fourth consecutive game. Heber and Gary Mackay-Steven, an early first half substitution, also scored.

Forward Yordy Reyna scored in the 64th minute for Vancouver.

The game had an eventful first half. A crowd of 17,512 at BC Place Stadium watched New York City score twice and two Whitecaps assistant coaches get ejected for arguing a disputed call.

Mitrita made it 3-1 in the 77th minute when his free kick from about 25 yards out squeezed in between the post and Whitecaps goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. It was his eighth goal of the year.

New York City used a turnover in the 10th minute to go ahead 1-0 on Heber’s 14th goal of the season. Midfielder Tony Rocha took the ball off the foot of Vancouver midfielder Jon Erice, then passed it to Mitrita. He sent it to Heber who scored on a low, hard shot. It was Mitrita’s league-leading 19th assist.

Heber limped off the field in the 21st minute after going down in a heap and was replaced by Mackay-Steven.

WATCH | Whitecaps fall to NYCFC:

New York City FC beat the Whitecaps 3-1, officially eliminating Vancouver from playoff contention 1:10

A pretty play by captain Maximiliano Moralez set up Mackay-Steven’s goal in the 26th minute. Moralez threaded a perfect pass through the Vancouver defence to a charging Mackay-Steven who chipped the ball over the Whitecap goalkeeper.

Tempers flared in the 31st minute when referee Marcos de Oliveira initially signalled a penalty kick should be awarded to Vancouver after New York City goalkeeper Sean Johnson appeared to foul Whitecaps forward Tosaint Ricketts. The call was reversed on a video replay, resulting in both goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha and assistant coach Vanni Sartini being ejected for arguing the decision.

Dahha didn’t go quietly. He rallied the booing crowd to their feet while being escorted off the pitch.

Reyna got the Whitecaps fans back into the game when he took a pass from Ricketts and took a shot from the right side of the box that curled just inside the left post.

The Whitecaps (6-15-9) were coming off a 2-1 loss to Montreal Wednesday and are (1-4-0) in their last five games. They have been outscored 11-5 in this stretch and sit last in the MLS Western Conference.

The win moved New York City into second place on the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Philadelphia Union.

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North Korea fired projectiles from its east coast, Japan confirms

North Korea fired at least two projectiles early on Thursday from its eastern coast, which Japanese government sources confirmed were short-range ballistic missiles, the Kyodo News reported.

The projectiles launched from near Wonsan flew about 430 kilometres to the east, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. A Japanese government source told Kyodo News the missiles did not reach Japan’s exclusive economic zone and had no impact on Japan’s national security.

The firing of ballistic missiles would cast new doubts on efforts to restart denuclearization talks after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas at the end of June.

The White House, Pentagon and U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We are aware of reports of a short-range projectile launched from North Korea,” a senior U.S. administration official said. “We have no further comment.”

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who has taken a hard line approach to North Korea, made no mention of the launches in a tweet on Thursday morning after a visit to South Korea, referring only to “productive meetings” with South Korean officials on regional security and building a stronger alliance.

The United States and North Korea vowed to soon hold new rounds of talks, but Pyongyang has since sharply criticized upcoming joint military drills by U.S. and South Korean troops.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are seen inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the South and North Korea on June 30 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Denuclearization talks between the two sides have been stalled since their meeting in Vietnam in February. (Handout/Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said earlier this month that Washington’s pattern of “unilaterally reneging on its commitments” by holding military exercises with South Korea was leading Pyongyang to reconsider its own commitments to discontinue tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“North Korea is clearly upset that the U.S. and South Korea are conducting joint military exercises,” said Harry Kazianis of Washington’s Center for the National Interest.

“We should not be shocked by this move and, in fact, we should have seen it coming.”

Trump stresses good relationship

North Korea’s last weapons testing was in May, which included both short-range missiles as well as smaller rockets. At the time, Kim oversaw the first flight of a previously untested weapon — a relatively small, fast missile that experts believe will be easier to hide, launch and manoeuvre in flight.

On Tuesday, North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, reported that Kim inspected a large, newly built submarine while accompanied by missile program leaders. It potentially signalled continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile program.

Denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States have stalled after a second summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February broke down.

Trump has repeatedly stressed his good relationship with Kim and is keen for a big foreign policy win as he campaigns for re-election in 2020.

When Trump and Kim met last month he said they had agreed to resume talks. On Monday, Trump stressed North Korea’s freeze in testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which has been in place since 2017, and positive recent exchanges.

“There was a little correspondence recently,” he said. “We had very positive correspondence with North Korea. Again there’s no nuclear testing, there’s no missile testing, there’s no nothing.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said the State Department had “a number of conversations with the North Koreans” and he hoped the talks with North Korea would begin soon.

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