Experts, images suggest a Saudi ballistic missile program
By JON GAMBRELL
Saturday, January 26
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A military base deep inside Saudi Arabia appears to be testing and possibly manufacturing ballistic missiles, experts and satellite images suggest, evidence of the type of weapons program it has long criticized its archrival Iran for possessing.
Further raising the stakes for any such program are comments by Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said last year the kingdom wouldn’t hesitate to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads to targets thousands of kilometers (miles) away.
Officials in Riyadh and the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Having such a program could further strain relations with the U.S., the kingdom’s longtime security partner, at a time when ties already are being tested by the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said heavy investment in missiles often correlates with an interest in nuclear weapons. “I would be a little worried that we’re underestimating the Saudis’ ambitions here,” said Lewis, who has studied the satellite images.
The images, first reported by The Washington Post, focus on a military base near the town of al-Dawadmi, some 230 kilometers (145 miles) west of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Jane’s Defence Weekly first identified the base in 2013, suggesting its two launch pads appear oriented to target Israel and Iran with ballistic missiles the kingdom previously bought from China.
The November satellite images show what appear to be structures big enough to build and fuel ballistic missiles. An apparent rocket-engine test stand can be seen in a corner of the base — the type on which a rocket is positioned on its side and test-fired in place. Such testing is key for countries attempting to manufacture working missiles, experts say.
Michael Elleman, the senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, also reviewed the satellite photos and said they appear to show a ballistic missile program.
The question remains where Saudi Arabia gained the technical know-how to build such a facility. Lewis said the Saudi stand closely resembles a design used by China, though it is smaller.
Chinese military support to the kingdom would not come as a surprise. The Chinese have increasingly sold armed drones to Saudi Arabia and other Mideast nations, even as the U.S. blocks sales of its own to allies over proliferation concerns. Beijing also sold Riyadh variants of its Dongfeng ballistic missiles, the only ones the kingdom was previously believed to have in its arsenal.
Asked by The Associated Press on Friday about the base, China’s Defense Ministry declined immediately to comment.
“I have never heard of such a thing as China helping Saudi Arabia to build a missile base,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor China are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 30-year-old agreement aimed at limiting the proliferation of rockets capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear bombs.
Saudi Arabia, along with Israel and the United States, have long criticized Iran’s ballistic missile program, viewing it as a regional threat.
Iran, whose nuclear program for now remains limited by its 2015 deal with world powers, insists its atomic program is peaceful. But Western powers have long feared it was pursuing nuclear weapons in the guise of a civilian program, allegations denied by Tehran.
Iran has relied on its ballistic missiles as its own air force is largely made up of pre-1979 fighter jets. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has a fleet of modern F-15s, Typhoons and Tornadoes — which raises the question of why the Saudis would choose to develop the missiles.
Elleman, the defense expert, said that while Saudi pilots are skilled, the kingdom still needs American help with logistics.
“Today, they rely heavily on direct American support. There is no absolute guarantee that U.S. forces and supporting functions will aid a Saudi attack on Iranian targets,” Elleman told the AP. “Ballistic missiles are a reasonable hedge against those concerns.”
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been targeted by ballistic missiles fired from neighboring Yemen by the Houthi rebels, some of which have reached Riyadh. Researchers, Western nations and U.N. experts say Iran supplied those missiles to the rebels, something Tehran and the rebels deny.
Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own nuclear program, and Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old son of King Salman who is next in line for the throne, said it would race for an atomic weapon if Iran were to develop one.
“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview aired last March.
A Saudi program would only complicate efforts by the U.S. and its Western allies to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program, said STRATFOR, the Austin, Texas-based private intelligence firm.
STRATFOR said that “should Saudi Arabia move into a test-launch phase, the United States will be pressured to take action with sanctions,” as it has done with Iran.
Congress has grown increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly carried out by members of Prince Mohammed’s entourage. The kingdom’s yearslong war in Yemen also has angered lawmakers.
If the Saudis produce “medium-range systems inherently capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the response will be much more robust, though likely out of public view,” Elleman said. “Congress, on the other hand, may lash out, as this will be seen as another affront to the U.S. and regional stability.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed.
20 dead as bombs target Sunday Mass in Philippine cathedral
Sunday, January 27
JOLO, Philippines (AP) — Two bombs minutes apart tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral on a southern Philippine island where Muslim militants are active, killing at least 20 people and wounding 111 others during a Sunday Mass, officials said.
Witnesses said the first blast inside the Jolo cathedral in the provincial capital sent churchgoers, some of them wounded, to stampede out of the main door. Army troops and police posted outside were rushing in when the second bomb went off about one minute later near the main entrance, causing more deaths and injuries. The military was checking a report that the second explosive device may have been attached to a parked motorcycle.
The initial explosion scattered the wooden pews inside the main hall and blasted window glass panels, and the second bomb hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said. Cellphone signal was cut off in the first hours after the attack. The witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press refused to give their names or were busy at the scene of the blasts.
Police said at least 20 people died and 111 were wounded, correcting an earlier toll due to double counting. The fatalities included 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded were 17 troops, two police, two coast guard and 90 civilians.
Troops in armored carriers sealed off the main road leading to the church while vehicles transported the dead and wounded to the town hospital. Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.
“I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worships and public places at once, and initiate pro-active security measures to thwart hostile plans,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said in Manila.
It said that “the enemies of the state boldly challenged the government’s capability to secure the safety of citizens in that region. The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals.”
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected militants outside the cathedral in 1997.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
It came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead. Although most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that’s opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that not part of any peace process.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact. They worry that small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.
“This bomb attack was done in a place of peace and worship, and it comes at a time when we are preparing for another stage of the peace process in Mindanao,” said Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. “Human lives are irreplaceable,” he added, calling on Jolo residents to cooperate with authorities to find the perpetrators of this “atrocity.”
Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just concluded plebiscite,” Oscar Albayalde, the national police chief, told ABS-CBN TV network. Hermogenes Esperon, the national security adviser, said that the new autonomous region, called Bangsamoro, “signifies the end of war for secession. It stands for peace in Mindanao.”
Aside from the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.
Abu Sayyaf militants are still holding at least five hostages — a Dutch national, two Malaysians, an Indonesian and a Filipino — in their jungle bases mostly near Sulu’s Patikul town, not far from Jolo.
Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, including those in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people. A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital of Jolo.
There have been speculations that the bombings may be a diversionary move by Muslim militants after troops recently carried out an offensive that killed a number of IS-linked extremists in an encampment in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur province, also in the south. The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city that was besieged for five months by hundreds of IS-aligned militants, including foreign fighters, in 2017. Troops quelled the insurrection, which left more 1,100 mostly militants dead and the heartland of the mosque-studded city in ruins.
Duterte declared martial law in the entire southern third of the country to deal with the Marawi siege, his worst security crisis. His martial law declaration has been extended to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents but bombings and other attacks have continued.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.
Fears that 2nd dam could breach in Brazil prompt evacuations
By MARCELO SILVA DE SOUSA and PETER PRENGAMAN
Sunday, January 27
BRUMADINHO, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian officials on Sunday suspended the search for potential survivors of a dam collapse that has killed at least 40 people amid fears that another nearby dam owned by the same company was also at risk of breaching.
Authorities were evacuating several neighborhoods in the southeastern city of Brumadinho that were within range of the B6 dam owned by the Brazilian mining company Vale. There was no immediate word on how many people were evacuated.
“Leave here, this is at risk!” police officials told firefighters in a lower-lying area. “Within a little while, more mud will fall.”
The firefighters had been working to extract a cow found alive in the mud, but they pulled back on the order of police, leaving the animal.
While the ground search was stopped, helicopters continued to fly over the area, possibly so they would not be hit if another collapse happened.
Caroline Steifeld, who was evacuated, said she heard warning sirens on Sunday, but no such alert came on Friday, when the first dam collapsed.
“I only heard shouting, people saying to get out. I had to run with my family to get to higher ground, but there was no siren,” she said, adding that a cousin was still unaccounted for.
Even before the latest setbacks, hope that loved ones had survived a tsunami of iron ore mine waste from Friday’s dam collapse in the area was turning to anguish and anger over the increasing likelihood that many of the hundreds of people missing had died.
Company employees at the mining complex were eating lunch Friday afternoon when the first dam gave way. By Saturday night, when authorities called off rescue efforts until daybreak, the dam break toll stood at 40 dead with up to 300 people estimated to be missing.
All day Saturday, helicopters flew low over areas encased by a river of mud and mining waste as firefighters dug frantically to get into buried structures.
“I’m angry. There is no way I can stay calm,” said Sonia Fatima da Silva, as she tried to get information about her son, who had worked at Vale for 20 years. “My hope is that they be honest. I want news, even if it’s bad.”
Da Silva said she last spoke to her son before he went to work on Friday, when around midday a dam holding back mine waste collapsed, sending waves of mud for kilometers (miles) and burying much in its path.
She was one of scores of relatives in Brumadinho who desperately awaited word on their loved ones. Romeu Zema, the governor of Minas Gerais state, said by now most recovery efforts will entail pulling out bodies.
The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and an occupied Vale administrative office. It buried buildings to their rooftops and an extensive field of the mud cut off roads.
Some residents barely escaped with their lives.
“I saw all the mud coming down the hill, snapping the trees as it descended. It was a tremendous noise,” said a tearful Simone Pedrosa, from the neighborhood of Parque Cachoeira, 5 miles (8 kilometers) from where the dam collapsed.
Pedrosa, 45, and her parents dashed to their car and drove to the highest point in the neighborhood.
“If we had gone down the other direction, we would have died,” Pedrosa said.
“I cannot get that noise out of my head,” she said. “It’s a trauma … I’ll never forget.”
In addition to the 40 bodies recovered as of Saturday night, 23 people were hospitalized, according to the Minas Gerais fire department. There had been some signs of hope earlier Saturday when authorities found 43 more people alive.
The company said Saturday that while 100 workers were accounted for, more than 200 workers were still missing. Fire officials at one point estimated the total number at close to 300.
Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman said he did not know what caused the collapse.
For many, hope was evaporating.
“I don’t think he is alive,” said Joao Bosco, speaking of his cousin, Jorge Luis Ferreira, who worked for Vale. “Right now, I can only hope for a miracle.”
Vanilza Sueli Oliveira described the wait for news of her nephew as “distressing, maddening.”
“Time is passing,” she said. “It’s been 24 hours already. … I just don’t want to think that he is under the mud.”
The rivers of mining waste also raised fears of widespread environmental contamination and degradation.
According to Vale’s website, the waste, often called tailings, is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a U.N. report found that the waste from a similar disaster in 2015 “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”
Over the weekend, state courts and the justice ministry in the state of Minas Gerais froze about $1.5 billion from Vale assets for state emergency services and told the company to report on how they would help the victims.
Brazil’s Attorney General Raquel Dodge promised to investigate the mining dam collapse, saying “someone is definitely at fault.” Dodge noted there are 600 mines in the state of Minas Gerais alone that are classified as being at risk of rupture.
Another dam administered by Vale and Australian mining company BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana in the same state of Minas Gerais, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes. Considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, it left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed thousands of fish. An estimated 60 million cubic meters of waste flooded nearby rivers and eventually flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Sueli de Oliveira Costa, who hadn’t heard from her husband since Friday, had harsh words for the mining company.
“Vale destroyed Mariana and now they’ve destroyed Brumadinho,” she said.
The Folia de S.Paulo newspaper reported Saturday that the dam’s mining complex was issued an expedited license to expand in December due to “decreased risk.” Conservation groups in the area alleged that the approval was unlawful.
On Twitter, new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said his government would do everything it could to “prevent more tragedies” like Mariana and now Brumadinho.
The far-right leader campaigned on promises to jump-start Brazil’s economy, in part by deregulating mining and other industries.
Environmental groups and activists said the latest spill underscored the lack of environmental regulation in Brazil, and many promised to fight any further deregulation.
Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and presidential candidate, toured the area on Sunday. She said such tragedies should be deemed “heinous crimes,” and that Congress should bear part of the blame for not toughening regulations and enforcement.
“All the warnings have been given. We are repeating history with this tragedy,” she told The Associated Press. “Brazil can’t become a specialist in rescuing victims and consoling widows. Measures need to be taken to avoid prevent this from happening again.”
Peter Prengaman reported from Arraial do Cabo, Brazil.
Duterte visits site of fatal bombings, Abu Sayyaf suspected
By JIM GOMEZ
Monday, January 28
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Rodrigo Duterte and his top security officials on Monday visited a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines where suspected Islamic militants set off bombs that killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 100.
The first blast sent people, some of them wounded, fleeing out the church’s main door. Army troops and police were rushing inside when the second bomb exploded a minute later. The explosions scattered wooden pews inside the main hall, blasted out window glass panels and hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said.
The attack occurred in the Sulu provincial capital on Jolo island, where Abu Sayyaf militants have carried out years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Duterte walked slowly into the bombed cathedral, where the wooden pews were still in disarray. At one point he looked at the ceiling, where many panels were ripped off by the blasts.
Duterte ordered the armed forces to crush the Abu Sayyaf. The group has an estimated 300 to 400 members, mostly in Sulu where it is holding several foreign and Filipino kidnap victims.
Duterte later met with families of the victims at a military camp in Jolo where coffins were laid side by side.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was with the president, blamed the attack on Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Sawadjaan, who he said has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
“This is an act of terrorism,” Lorenzana said. “This is not a religious war.”
Sawadjaan is based in the jungles of Patikul town, near Jolo, and has been blamed for ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men, in recent years.
Police put forces around the country on heightened alert to prevent similar attacks.
The bombings came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead. Although most Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that is opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.
A statement by the Islamic State group posted on social media claimed the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who wore explosive belts, one detonating at the gate and the other in the parking lot.
Police said at least 20 people died and 111 were wounded. The fatalities were 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded, about 90 are civilians.
The United Nations and others denounced the attack. In a statement attributed to a spokesman, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice and reiterated the U.N.’s support for the Philippines’ efforts to fight terrorism and to carry forward a peace process in the Muslim region.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact in part to ease concerns that Filipino militants could ally themselves with foreigners and turn the southern region into a breeding ground for extremists.
Aside from Abu Sayyaf, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group.
Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, and Duterte has extended martial law in the entire southern third of the country to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents, but bombings and other attacks have continued.