Nusra Front demands obstruct release of Lebanese soldiers: security chief

BEIRUT Efforts to secure the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen held captive by the Nusra Front have been obstructed by last minute demands from the Syrian al Qaeda-linked group, the head of a Lebanese security agency was quoted as saying on Monday.Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, told al Joumhouria newspaper the government had fulfilled all its commitments to secure their release. The men were expected to be released over the weekend in a deal that would include the release of a number of Islamist prisoners jailed in Lebanon.The security personnel were taken captive in August 2014 during an incursion from by fighters from the Nusra Front and Islamic State into the border town of Arsal. The authorities have been trying to negotiate the release with Qatari mediation."We showed our flexibility on many of the demands by Nusra Front, and completed all the commitments to implement the deal," Ibrahim said. "It got to a point where we could not comply with paralyzing demands that the kidnappers made at the last minute." Four of those held have been killed. Nusra is still holding 16 security personnel, according to a security source. Nine soldiers believed to be held by Islamic State are not included in the negotiations. Local media began circulating reports on Friday that a deal was imminent, but by Monday morning none had been struck. Prime Minister Tammam Salam canceled a trip to Paris for a global climate change summit in order to follow up on the continuing negotiations. Violence from the Syrian war has repeatedly spilled over to Lebanon, with bombings in Beirut, fighting in the northern city of Tripoli, and rocket attacks on Bekaa Valley towns close to the frontier. (Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Tom Perry and Alison Williams) Read more

Lie detectors, solitary: How South Korea screens refugees

SEOUL South Korea has spent decades screening refugees from a hostile neighbor but some enemy agents manage to get through, underlining the challenges Western nations face in dealing with a far larger influx of people escaping the war in Syria.Seoul uses lie detectors, interrogation and a screening process that includes keeping people in solitary confinement to catch North Korean agents among genuine asylum seekers. Still, between 2003 and 2013, of the 49 North Korean spies apprehended in the South, 21 entered the country posing as refugees, according to the country's justice ministry."The question of spies slipping through is always a problem, and we need to make the process more meticulous and advanced," said Shin Kyung-min, the ranking opposition member of the South Korean parliament's intelligence committee."But it's not like we can stop taking in North Korean defectors because of that," Shin told Reuters.There are growing calls in the United States and in Europe to bar tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria's civil war following this month's Paris attacks because of concerns that vetting processes are not stringent enough and that extremists planning attacks could slip through. More than 1,000 North Koreans defect to the South every year and are held for up to 180 days while they are screened. If they clear that, the refugees are transferred to a resettlement complex, which they cannot leave, for another 12 weeks to help them adjust to life in the South.New North Korean arrivals to the South, who typically enter via a third country, are brought to a facility in Siheung on the southern outskirts of Seoul. There, they are separated for questioning on their backgrounds and lives in the North, spending time in solitary but comfortable rooms.No exception is made for families or children, who are taken from their parents and face similar questioning, according to a civic group."It was like writing my autobiography," said a 59-year-old female defector who spent three months at the interrogation center from 2012 and asked that she not be named because she is not supposed to talk about the process. "I talked about my whole life in chronological order and got checked," she told Reuters."I came here to change my life so there was nothing that I was afraid of."Lie detectors are used as a basic tool, as many defectors from the isolated and impoverished North are undocumented, a former National Intelligence Service official said.A typical interrogation starts with the defector's address, and the program has built a database with locations, names and other details to compare with their story, Shin, the lawmaker said.The National Intelligence Service declined to comment for this article. The program has succeeded in weeding out about 120 bogus defectors and 14 spies, local media reports last year said, citing intelligence officials. Fake defectors are believed mainly to consist of ethnic Korean citizens of mainland China. The numbers could not be independently verified.Those found not to be North Korean defectors are deported, while those determined to be spies are prosecuted, according to South Korean authorities.SUBMARINES AND GUNFIGHTSPyongyang is believed to have begun sending spies posing as defectors to the South in the late 1990s when large batches of refugees fled a massive, deadly famine. Before that, South Korea occasionally caught armed spies who had infiltrated from across the militarized border, or via small submarines in the dark of night. Some confrontations between North Korean agents and South Korean security forces ended in deadly gunfights."It is not an easy process because they are disguised as refugees, highly trained, dispatched by counter-South espionage agencies," said Jun Ok-hyun, a former deputy director of South Korea's spy agency who retired in 2009."The more defectors come, the stronger the review process should be because it could be easier for North Korea to send spies as fake refugees," he told Reuters.Once refugees are cleared by intelligence officials, they move to a resettlement center where they learn practical aspects of life in the modern, capitalist South, such as using an ATM and the differences in local usage of a common language that has evolved separately during seven decades of division.They also get health checks, nutritional support and vocational training.When defectors leave the resettlement center and move into the general population, police officers are assigned to protect and manage them, according to police officials who declined to elaborate.Shin, the opposition lawmaker, noted that most North Koreans entering the South are genuine refugees and said the screening program is "quite impressive"."The challenge for us is to pick out the spies getting increasingly sophisticated in fabricating their stories." (Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan) Read more

Cubans protest new Ecuador visa regulation

HAVANA Hundreds of Cubans protested at the Ecuadorean embassy in Cuba on Friday, a day after the Andean nation announced they would need visas to enter the country as of Dec. 1.The Cubans waved their passports and plane tickets and said they were angry because they had already bought tickets under the previous no-visa policy of Ecuador and wanted passage or their money back.An Ecuadorean diplomat told the crowd they would have to go online and get a 90-day tourism visa and speak to the airlines about refunds. Cuban police secured the embassy, which they said was closed. There was no violence. "Now they are saying we can't travel to Ecuador because of the Cubans who are skipping out. That's not our fault!" said Ivan Balera, 51, who said he spent over $1,000 on his ticket. The embassy said at a press conference that the web page for applying for the visa is up and running, and Cubans will have to work with airlines to change their tickets if they are not able to obtain a visa in time."Governments can't intervene in commercial policies... However... we are aware that the airlines are willing to issue refunds," said Ecuadorean Consul Soraya Blanca Encalada. Ecuador said it made the decision at a regional meeting on Tuesday in El Salvador to discuss the future of thousands of Cubans stranded at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border en route to the United States."We decided to impose the visa requirement for Cuban citizens in order to discourage the flow of people seeking to reach the United States," Ecuador's foreign minister, Xavier Lasso, told reporters on Thursday. Thousands of Cubans have traveled to Ecuador over the past decade, some to purchase goods for resale at home and others to settle. Many to use the country as an entry point for making the perilous trek through Central America to the Mexican border with the United States, where they are granted entry and residency, unlike other migrants. The office of Ecuador airline Tame in Havana posted a sign on the door directing Cubans with tickets for after Dec. 1 to contact the embassy. "Nothing has been specified yet. We are supposed to receive instructions on Monday," said a Tame office worker in Havana who declined to give her name. She said it had not yet been decided whether Tame would change its refund policy. (Editing by Marc Frank and Dan Grebler) Read more

One killed, several injured in hit-and-run crash in New York City

One person was killed and several people were injured on a busy New York City street on Thursday when a hit-and-run driver struck a pedestrian before driving away and crashing into parked cars, police said.The driver of the car struck a woman who was crossing a busy intersection in Brooklyn around 7 p.m. local time, the New York City Police Department said. She was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was pronounced dead.After hitting the woman, the driver then accelerated down the street, crashing into parked vehicles and injuring several pedestrians, the spokesman said. Local news broadcaster WCBS-TV said at least 10 people were hurt. The extent of their injuries was not known.The driver of the vehicle fled on foot and was detained by police, the spokesman said. Charges were pending. Police were looking into whether alcohol or drugs played a role in the incident, which occurred late on the Thanksgiving Day holiday. (Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Edinting by Kim Coghill) Read more

GLOBAL MARKETS-Euro on shaky ground, stocks up on talk of aggressive ECB easing

* Euro heads back towards Wednesday's low $1.0565* ECB rate talk pushes short-term rates to record low* Market activity thinned by U.S. Thanksgiving holiday* Brent crude futures fall, copper prices rebound (New throughout, updates prices and market activity)By Dhara Ranasinghe and Alastair SharpLONDON/TORONTO, Nov 26 The euro slipped towards seven-month lows, bond yields fell and European shares rallied on Thursday on growing talk of aggressive stimulus from the European Central Bank next week.The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index settled 0.9 percent higher, adding to Wednesday's 1.4 percent gain, while the Euro STOXX 50 index added 1.1 percent.Canada's main stock index rose 0.25 percent, led by gains for its heavyweight financial sector and some of its biggest miners. Wall Street was closed for Thanksgiving, a day after shares closed flat in a pre-holiday lull.Overnight, Asian stocks closed modestly higher. MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.2 percent."Expectations surrounding the ECB are running very high and this is driving European markets higher, weakening the euro and helping them do better than U.S. stocks," said Marco Vailati, head of research and investment at Italy's Cassa Lombarda."I think and hope the ECB will not disappoint but I realise that it won't be that easy," he said. Euro zone central bank officials are considering options such as staggered charges on banks hoarding cash and buying more debt ahead of next week's ECB meeting, Reuters reported on Wednesday.That fueled talk that the central bank is preparing aggressive measures to lift inflation and economic growth in the 19-member euro zone.HOW LOW FOR EURO?This view kept the euro under pressure, and it dipped to $1.0605, a day after it tumbled as low as $1.0565, its lowest since mid-April. Against the yen, the euro fell 0.2 percent to 130.12 yen, a day after hitting a seven-month low of 129.77.Market activity was thin due to the U.S. holiday, with the greenback trading in a tight range. "Ultimately, I think the ECB will be aggressive and that divergence in policy with the United States must imply a weaker euro," said Chris Scicluna, head of economic research at Daiwa Capital Markets in London."The question now is how far can we go, and as the Fed tightens, euro/dollar parity is looking likely by the second quarter of next year."Euro zone lending expanded in October at its fastest rate in nearly four years, while a broader measure of money circulating grew well ahead of expectations, ECB data showed.Still, banks continue to park around 160 billion euros in overnight deposits with the ECB, as negative rates and extraordinary stimulus have yet to unblock lending channels.Short-term euro zone interest rates fell to record lows as markets braced for an aggressive cut due to an ECB debate about two-tier deposit rates. German five-year government bond yields fell to a record low of -0.189 percent, while two-year yields hovered just above lows at -0.409 percent.U.S. economic data on Wednesday cemented expectations that U.S. interest rates will rise soon, helping push the gap between short-dated bond yields in the U.S. and Germany to their widest since 2006 and underpinning the dollar.OIL LOWER, COPPER REBOUNDSOil prices fell after six days of gains, as investors grew less worried that violence in the Middle East would disrupt supply, and returned their focus to the global supply glut.Brent crude oil futures fell 1.2 percent to $45.62 a barrel.Spot gold was little changed at $1,071.50 an ounce, close to its lowest in nearly six years on a firmer dollar and expectations for higher U.S. interest rates.Copper prices bounced to their highest in nearly two weeks, then pared gains. A strong dollar has slammed that metal in recent weeks.Turkish assets remained under pressure as Russia threatened economic retaliation over its downed jet, but other emerging equities edged up, snapping a three-day losing streak.Emerging stocks were last up 0.16 percent. (Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp in Toronto and Danilo Masoni; Editing by Dominic Evans) Read more

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