While the world watches Syria, Russia Escalates Ground Game in Georgia

republic-of-south-ossetia-mapAs Russia consolidates its gains in Syria and stalls on peace talks in Ukraine, the New York Times reports that Russia is slowly inching forward on another front. In South Ossetia, the breakaway republic of Georgia sponsored by Russia since the 2008 war, the border keeps creeping forward: 

Marked in places with barbed wire laid at night, in others by the sudden appearance of green signs declaring the start of a “state border” and elsewhere by the arrival of bulldozers, the reach of Russia keeps inching forward into Georgia with ever more ingenious markings of a frontier that only Russia and three other states recognize as real. 

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-story house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards. […] 

“Russia starts right here,” said Mr. Tatiashvili, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

The Times story is a fascinating look into the day-to-day realities of living in disputed territory produced by one of Moscow’s frozen conflicts. It also demonstrates Russia’s ability to create “facts on the ground” through the application of force and the tacit complicity of leadership—in Georgia and the West—that is too distracted or risk-averse to push back. Russia has been moving the occupation line and setting up barbed-wire barricades since 2013.

That track marks the world’s newest and perhaps oddest international frontier — the elastic boundary between Georgian-controlled land and the Republic of South Ossetia, a self-proclaimed breakaway state financed, defended and controlled by Moscow.

georgia-and-disputed-areas-mapThe destitute mountainous area of South Ossetia first declared itself independent from Georgia in 1990, but nobody outside the region paid much attention until Russia invaded in August 2008 and recognized South Ossetia’s claims to statehood. With that, the territory joined Abkhazia in western Georgia, the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria and eastern Ukraine as a “frozen zone,” an area of Russian control within neighboring states, useful for things like preventing a NATO foothold or ddestabilizing the host country at opportune moments.

Leonid Tibilov
Leonid Tibilov

The leader of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, has said he plans to hold a referendum like the one in Crimea in 2014 on whether to request annexation by Russia.

But even without a referendum, the nominally independent country is already Russian territory in all but name. It has its own small security force, but its self-declared frontiers are mainly guarded by Russia’s border service, an arm of the Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet version of the K.G.B. It houses three Russian military bases with several thousand troops and, with no economy beyond a few farms, depends almost entirely on Russian aid for its survival.

24georgia-web-superjumboThe green border signs that first appeared last year and now keep popping up along the zigzagging boundary warn that “passage is forbidden” across what is declared to be a “state border.” Which state, however, is not specified, though locals are in no doubt about its identity.

“Russia starts right here,” Mr. Tatiashvili said, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land.

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

One of the new signs — written in English and Georgian — is just a few hundred yards from Georgia’s main east-west highway, and it puts a short part of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to a Georgian port on the Black Sea within territory controlled by Russia.

So tangled is the dispute over what land belongs to whom that each side has its own definition of the line. Russia and South Ossetia insist it is a border like any other — Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru also recognize it — while Georgia calls it “the occupation line.” The European Union, which has around 200 unarmed police officers in Georgia to monitor the agreement that ended the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, also says there is no actual border, only an “administrative boundary line.”

Kestutis Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia
Kestutis Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia

Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia, said it was hard to know where this boundary line exactly runs. It was never recognized or agreed upon, and its location depends on which maps are used. Russia, he said, is using a map drawn by the Soviet military’s general staff in the 1980s.

It demarcates what in the Soviet era was an inconsequential administrative boundary within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia but what is now hardening into a hazardous frontier.

The fitful movement of the boundary seems to be driven mostly by Russia’s desire to align what it sees as a state border with this old Soviet map. So far, the movement has always been forward, often by just a few yards but at other times by bigger leaps.

Mikheil Saakashvili
Mikheil Saakashvili

When it defeated supporters of former President Mikheil Saakashvili in elections four years ago, a coalition led by Georgian Dream, a party set up by an enigmatic billionaire, pledged to reduce tensions with Russia, which loathed Mr. Saakashvili.

Instead, Russian border guards have moved deeper into Georgian territory.

Bidzina Ivanishvili
Bidzina Ivanishvili

The shifting border has created credibility problems for the Georgian government, exposing the ruling Georgian Dream party to criticism that it is too soft on Russia. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder and sponsor, has always encouraged a lenient line toward Moscow, musing about joining the Eurasian Union and urging “patience” as Russia installed fences on the border. Nonetheless, Georgian Dream prevailed in the initial parliamentary elections on October 8, with the runoff at the end of

the month set to determine the extent of the party’s majority.

Giorgi Kvirikashvili
Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Even with a stronger mandate, however, Georgian Dream is unlikely to take a harsher stance on Russia. True, the New York Times quotes Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili apparently questioning the wisdom of rapprochement: “Unfortunately, Russia never appreciates when you concede or make a step forward or compromise,” said Kvirikashvili. “They always take it for granted.”

All the same, he insisted that even though his government had no intention of repeating Mr. Saakashvili’s disastrous 2008 attempt to confront Russia militarily, the border will not last.

But the true decider in Georgian Dream remain Ivanishvili, who craves good relations with Moscow and has floated the idea of cooperating with the Alliance of Patriots, the most overtly pro-Moscow party in Parliament.

While the Prime Minister’s words may provide hope to Russia hawks, they have not translated into actual policy proposals to counter Russia’s actions.

A protest rally in Tblisi criticizing government policies toward Russia.
A protest rally in Tblisi criticizing government policies toward Russia.

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-storey house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards.

So, expect business as usual in Georgia: Russia will continue to change facts on the ground, while Tbilisi and the West do little but protest.

 

Advertisements

UN reports that Food has run out in rebel-held Aleppo

civil_war_in_syria

Jan Egeland of Norway, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaks during a press conference before the meeting at the United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, January 11, 2005. Fifteen days after an unprecedented disaster struck the nations of South Asia, the international effort to provide relief and assistance to millions of victims is gathering steam in the field and increasing amounts of aid is making its way to those who need it. Attempting to meet the needs of the 12 stricken nations will bring representatives from more than 80 governments together in Geneva today to plan a long-term recovery effort for the region. (KEYSTONE/Laurent Gillieron)
Jan Egeland of Norway, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaks during a press conference before the meeting at the United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, January 11, 2005.

The last remaining food rations are being distributed in besieged rebel-held eastern districts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the UN has said.

Humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland warned that without a resupply there would be no food left to hand out next week to the 275,000 people living there.

Mr Egeland ruled out airdrops of food, explaining that they were not possible in densely-populated urban areas.

Humanitarian agencies have been unable to get into rebel-held Aleppo since the government siege resumed in September, and the last time significant aid supplies were delivered was in July. The area is under siege by government forces with help from Russian air power.

Government forces launched a major assault on eastern Aleppo in September.

Since then, troops have pushed into several outlying areas with the help of Iranian-backed Shia militias and Russian air strikes.

aleppo-map

 

On October 28, an alliance of opposition fighters, including Islamist militants, started a major offensive to break the government siege, which has been in place on eastern Aleppo since July. But their progress slowed after early gains.

Hundreds have died since the government launched an assault on eastern Aleppo in September
Hundreds have died since the government launched an assault on eastern Aleppo in September

The UN says weeks of air strikes and shelling have killed more than 700 civilians in the east, while rocket-fire has left scores dead in the government-controlled west.

“It is a horrendous situation,” said Egeland, the United Nations’ top envoy on humanitarian efforts in Syria.

The Norwegian diplomat said the UN appealed again last week to the conflict parties to let food, medicine and health workers into eastern Aleppo, and to allow the evacuation of some 300 patients along with their families.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that Russia is continuing its humanitarian pause of air attacks on eastern Aleppo, in comments carried by the Interfax news agency.

However, Egeland noted that continuing heavy fighting on the ground has made aid efforts impossible.

In addition, the warring sides have raised various conditions that have further complicated UN efforts.

“I haven’t seen a place where there has been so much politicization, manipulation of aid as we have seen in Syria,” he said at a press briefing.

 Egeland urged the United States, which backs Syrian anti-government rebels, and Russia to use their influence to unblock the humanitarian operation.

“Parties that are sponsoring the parties on the ground have to help us more,” he said, adding that he was optimistic that a solution would be found.

The Syrian army said it took the strategic 1070 Apartments district on Tuesday.
The Syrian army said it took the strategic 1070 Apartments district on Tuesday.

In the divided city of Aleppo, regime forces made more advances Thursday into areas which were taken by opposition rebels last month, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The monitoring group said regime troops and their allies managed to take over the Dahiyat al-Assad region west of the city.

Russia’s Ramping Up for War Where Nobody’s Looking

the-next-russian-interventionRussia is quietly testing the defenses of its Nordic neighbors with subtle provocations, alarming Western powers concerned about Moscow’s intentions in a vital but largely overlooked part of the world.

In recent months, Russian fighter jets violated the airspace of Western nations, Moscow has turned a blind eye as thousands of refugees from countries along its southern border use Russian territory to cross into Europe, and the former superpower has deployed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to areas that pose that a direct threat to NATO countries.

Taken in isolation, none of these incidents merits particular concern. Even major powers’ air forces occasionally mis-navigate and drift into sovereign airspace – though they usually acknowledge it and apologize. The Russians had previously pledged they would move their missile shield to Kaliningrad, sovereign territory, perhaps to offset Poland’s decision to purchase American Patriot missiles to use in defense. And all of Europe suffers from the ongoing migrant crisis as refugees from North Africa to Central Asia flee conflicts in their respective countries, so it makes sense some would find alternate routes after the Balkans, Macedonia and others sealed their borders.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

However, Moscow’s belligerence toward the West has mounted during Vladimir Putin’s 16 years of leadership, demonstrated through its apparent desire to sow political dissention and destabilize its foes. While the world’s attention is focused on crises in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, U.S. officials are quietly working to secure what they see as the next potential flashpoint of dangerous tensions along Europe’s northern border.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James
Air Force Secretary Deborah James

Air Force Secretary Deborah James last month visited Finland, Sweden and Norway the week after Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work returned from signing a security pact earlier in October, mirroring a similar arrangement the U.S. secured with Sweden in June, and a month after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Oslo in September. Their work centered on strengthening alliances with countries that are friendly to U.S. interests – particularly Sweden and Finland, which aren’t NATO allies – and that now feel compelled to move away from historically neutral roles in favor of preparing for Russian hostility.

James heard from her counterparts an almost unanimous refrain: None of Russia’s activities in recent weeks was a coincidence but rather examples of Moscow’s coordinated attempts to intimidate the region.

“I think they’re probably right,” James says.

Military buildups represent an increase in a country’s ability to wage war, James says, citing a long list of recent aggressive actions Russia has carried out in areas that were part of or in the strategic interests of the former Soviet empire: It annexed north Georgia in 2008, then Crimea in Ukraine in 2014. It’s steadily increased the quality of its military machinery and quantity of troops it can deploy, and does so, including to Syria last year to offset U.S. influence in the ongoing wars there. And Russia reportedly has a plan to undermine the current pro-West, pro-Europe sentiment in Eastern Europe that informs those countries’ economic and security policies.

Now it’s bolstering its military presence around the Baltic Sea, which James worries could trigger “a larger event.”

An Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile launcher
An Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile launcher

Last month, Russia transferred a shield of nuclear-capable missiles to its outpost province of Kaliningrad, adjacent to the Baltic countries and across the Baltic Sea from Norway, Sweden and Finland, as it had recently promised to do. It followed reports days before that two armed Su-27 fighter jets had crossed into Finnish airspace and lingered there for about a minute, one of them, reportedly, right as Work sat down to dinner with his counterparts in Helsinki after signing a new security cooperation pact.

The incidents follow Russia’s inexplicably opening its well-guarded border crossings with Norway and Finland starting last year, allowing thousands of refugees to spill over into the Western nations.

“Russia is not anyone’s enemy, because all of us to a certain degree have relationships with Russia. Certainly each of the three Scandinavian countries have cooperation with Russia in a variety of ways,” James says, including usually cooperative border security agreements. Norway and Russia, too, maintain close coordination for maritime search-and-rescue efforts along their Arctic borders.

“And yet,” James says, “everybody is worried about Russia.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Russia’s attempts to extend its influence and to emphasize the necessity of its involvement in world affairs have only been seen as provocation by its neighbors and the West. Washington has castigated Moscow for its support of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, which the U.S. has spun in public forums as a callous endorsement of a murderous regime. Russia’s annexation of Crimea challenged early 1990s Western promises to defend Ukraine in return for its surrendering its nuclear weapons. Russian fighter jets have on multiple occasions buzzed U.S. ships, including one that came within yards of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in April. U.S. officials at the time described the incident as deeply concerning, and the potential for a similar situation to escalate has become a common touchstone for military chiefs in the Nordic countries when privately describing their own nightmare scenarios.

Admiral Kuznetsov
Admiral Kuznetsov

Most recently, Moscow sailed a flotilla of warships bound for the Mediterranean through the English Channel, an unusual move that prompted Britain to dispatch its own warships to escort the convoy as it passed.

Yet Russia has demonstrated it isn’t necessarily willing to escalate a situation in which it is confronted. A Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian one after it crossed over into Turkish airspace in December. Both sides traded verbal barbs but it did not amount to military conflict.

Despite spies’ and analysts’ best efforts, it’s impossible to know what Putin hopes to achieve with these moves, or even if he is following the sheet music of one large master plan or simply seizing opportunities as they arise. The actions he’s taken already, however, appear to contribute to the amorphous goal of forcing other world powers to recognize Russia as one of them.

What is clear is that the extent he’s willing to go to win that goal grows even more worrisome.

In Stockholm, James received a closed-door briefing from the Defense Research Agency (DRA), a government-funded think tank that provides independent analysis, which offered a startling appraisal of Russia’s buildup in recent months.

Russia's navy ships and helicopters take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on Sept. 9, 2016.
Russia’s navy ships and helicopters take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on Sept. 9, 2016.

“Russia is moving toward conducting large-scale conflicts, not handling insurgencies,” DRA’s Russia specialist Fredrik Westerlund told James. “Though significant, Russia’s increased fighting power is not our top concern. Its willingness to fight is.”

Russia’s ability to fire land-attack missiles from ground-based launchers, aircraft, surface ships and submarines in Western Russia has tripled since 2013, according to DRA, though it’s unclear how accurately it can pinpoint its targets. It has also particularly increased its offensive military capabilities west of the Ural Mountains, the area that borders Europe. Moscow has focused on bolstering its armed forces’ ability to work together and has deployed provocative tools of war, like missile shields capable of employing nuclear weapons.

Their mostly likely targets are former Soviet Union countries, DRA says, like Moldova or Ukraine but also those that have since joined NATO, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A conflict with those latter countries would, by treaty, compel all other NATO countries to come to their aid, as they did for the U.S. when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 – the only time in the Cold War-era alliance’s history that part of its charter, Article 5, has been invoked.

“A major war can no longer be ruled out,” Robert Dalsjo, DRA’s expert on the Baltics, said of Russia. “What’s at stake is U.S. credibility for its own guarantees. … Their goal is to show that Article 5 is a joke.”

And so the U.S. is increasing attention to this part of the world – NATO and Europe’s “northern flank”– with this series of top officials’ visits and other forms of strengthening U.S. engagement. Marines from the Black Sea Rotational Force have begun intensifying training exercises in Norway alongside British royal marines, strengthening their NATO partners’ capabilities but also acclimatizing themselves to operating in a cold weather environment after focusing so much of the last two decades on desert warfare. A Marine officer who recently returned from a deployment there tells U.S. News it was the first time in his 20-year career he’s had cold weather training.

For James’ part, she sought ways the U.S. military can better cooperate with its partners, both through its alliance with Norway but also partnerships with Sweden and Finland as they reconfigure their militaries from post-Cold War peacetime toward the possibility of having to coordinate in war.

“The neighborhood is changing, and it has become more worrisome to those who live in the neighborhood,” James says. “It certainly has become more worrisome to the U.S. as a member of NATO and as a bilateral partner.”

Each country, she says, wants to have a military able enough to send Russia a strong signal: “If you try to bully me, I’m going to give you a really bad punch in the face. So don’t mess with me. That is the idea of this defense posture.”

Iran Is Sending Elite Fighters Into The U.S. and Europe

Quds Force 01The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the country’s elite military force, is sending assets to infiltrate the United States and Europe at the direction of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, according to recent Farsi-language comments from an Iranian military leader.

 “The whole world should know that the IRGC will be in the U.S. and Europe very soon,” Salar Abnoush, deputy coordinator of Iran’s Khatam-al-Anbia Garrison, an IRGC command front, was quoted as saying in an Iranian state-controlled publication closely tied to the IRGC. He said that these forces would operate with the goal of bolstering Iran’s hardline regime and thwarting potential plots against the Islamic Republic.

 The military leader’s comments come as Iran is spending great amounts of money to upgrade its military hardware and bolster its presence throughout the Middle East and beyond. Iran intends to spend billions to purchase U.S.-made planes that are likely to be converted for use in its air force.

 Congressional leaders and others suspect that Iran has used a large portion of the cash windfall it received as a result of last summer’s nuclear agreement to upgrade its fighting capabilities war machine.

iranian-revolutionary-guard-1 “The IRGC is the strong guardian of the Islamic Republic,” Abnoush was quoted as saying. “The Fedayeen of Velayat [fighting force] are under the order of Iran’s Supreme leader. Defending and protecting the Velayat [the Supreme Leader] has no border and limit.”

 Iranian military and government officials have continued to advocate violence against the U.S. and its allies, despite the nuclear deal and several secret side agreements that gave Iran $1.7 billion in cash.

iran_rel_2001 Iran accuses the U.S. of violating its end of the agreement by not helping the Islamic Republic gain further access to international banks and other markets.

Iran’s frustration over this has led to further accusations about a U.S. plot to foster unrest in the country.

 “Our enemies have several projects to destroy our Islamic revolution, and have waged three wars against us to execute their plans against our Islamic Republic,” Abnoush said. “The IRGC has defeated enemies in several fronts. The enemy surrendered and accepted to negotiate with us.”

 “And now all of our problems are being solved and our country is becoming stronger in all fronts. Some believe the holy defense ended,” the military leader added. “They are wrong; the holy defense continues, and today, it is more complicated than before.”

 Congressional sources and experts involved in tracking Iran’s increased aggression in the region and elsewhere told media sources that these most recent comments are troubling given Iran’s very public efforts to assassinate political enemies and others across the globe.

 “If we look at Iran’s previous terror attacks and assassination campaign around the world, such a statement is alarming,” Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “The Islamic Republic has killed hundreds of Iranians and non-Iranians around the world in a coordinated campaign of terror. Iran may decide to restart the project now that many western companies are going to Iran and Iran feels its action in Europe may not be punished strongly.”

 Another source who advises congressional leaders on Iran sanctions issues said that the Obama administration is blocking Congress from taking action to stop this type of infiltration by Iranian forces.

 “Iran is ideologically, politically, and militarily committed to exporting the Islamic revolution through terrorism, which is why even the Obama administration says they’re the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism,” the source said. “Congress wants to act, but Obama officials keep saying that new laws are unnecessary because the U.S. has enough tools to block Iranian terror expansion. Instead of using those tools, though, they’re sending Iran billions of dollars in cash while Iran plants terror cells in Europe and here at home.”

Rally turns violent in Jakarta as Muslim hardliners attack police

Mass rally in Jakarta
Mass rally in Jakarta

A massive demonstration by tens of thousands of Indonesian Muslims against Jakarta’s governor turned ugly Friday as hardliners burned police cars and clashed with officers, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

The ugly scenes — just meters from the presidential palace — marred an otherwise peaceful rally against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian accused of insulting Islam.

Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta
Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta

Police had earlier declared the much-hyped demonstration against Purnama, in which 50,000 protestors gathered at Jakarta’s biggest mosque, the Istiqlal, and then marched through the city’s main streets to the city hall and the nearby presidential palace in a huge show of force — a largely peaceful affair.

But as night fell thousands of radicals turned violent, setting police cars ablaze and attacking officers who hit back with tear gas, water cannon and truncheons.
Protests turn violent
Protests turn violent

Authorities took no chances in the lead up to the protest, deploying 18,000 officers and extra soldiers across Jakarta amid fears that radical elements could infiltrate the march.

The crowd, many wearing white shirts and white skull caps signaling Islamic piety, chanted slogans criticizing Purnama and waved banners calling for the governor’s arrest.

Rally turns violent in Jakarta
Rally turns violent in Jakarta

The demonstration appeared to be dying down by dusk as thousands began leaving the protest zone around city hall, the presidential palace and national monument.

But by nightfall riot police were put to the test as mobs of hardliners, draped in the white militant uniforms favored by Indonesian extremist groups, ran amok, hurling bottles, stones and lighting fires as officers used shields for cover.
President Joko Widodo
President Joko Widodo

The crowd sought to meet President Joko Widodo to demand that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama be prosecuted over remarks he made in September that some Muslims consider blasphemous.

In a video that made rounds on the internet last month, Purnama said his opponents in next year’s gubernatorial election had used a verse in the Koran to deceive voters and prevent him from winning another term.

The text in question is Surah Al-Mai’dah verse 51, which many Muslims in Indonesia interpret as prohibiting them from electing non-Muslims as their leaders.

Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama
Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama

The protest was triggered by accusations that Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, insulted Islam by criticizing opponents who used Koranic references to attack him ahead of an election in February.

Purnama apologized for the remarks, but his opponents have built a groundswell of support calling for his arrest and incarceration under Indonesia’s tough blasphemy laws.

“It’s no wonder people arise. Why when it comes to Ahok is the law not upheld?” deputy house speaker Fahri Hamzah, a prominent politician from an Islamic political party, told demonstrators earlier Friday.

Anger at Purnama, Jakarta’s second Christian governor and the first from the country’s ethnic Chinese community, spread beyond the capital, with solidarity marches also held across Java and in cities as far away as Makassar in Indonesia’s east.

The military warned it was ready to back police if things turned ugly, with helicopters flying low over the city and extra soldiers stationed at key government buildings reinforced with razor wire and armored vehicles.

Some foreign embassies warned their citizens to steer clear of the demonstration.

President Joko Widodo met this week with religious and political leaders to issue a unified call against violence while police sought to ease tensions by holding prayer sessions and broadcasting calls for peace on social media.

Indonesia is home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, where a vast majority practice a moderate form of Islam.

But the governor stoked religious tensions in September when he told a crowd they’d been “deceived” by his opponents who had used a Koranic verse to try to put them off voting for a Christian.

The governor — known for his tough-talking style — is hugely popular in other quarters for his determination to clean up Jakarta, an overcrowded, disorganized and polluted metropolis.

Purnama became Jakarta governor in November 2014, but was not elected to the post. He was deputy governor and automatically became governor after incumbent Widodo was elected Indonesian president.

Turkey places key leaders of pro-Kurdish party under arrest

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag
Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag

The two co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, have been formally arrested Friday by a court, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

They were among 12 HDP members of parliament who were detained in overnight raids. In total, five elected HDP legislators are under arrest, including the faction chief in parliament.

european-unionThe detentions and arrest have drawn condemnations from the European Union. In addition there is concern over restrictions on the Internet in Turkey, including efforts to block Twitter and Facebook and messaging applications like WhatsApp.

The government accuses the HDP of having links to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the leaders are facing terrorism-related charges, including spreading propaganda. The HDP says it rejects all violence and is not the political wing of the armed group.

Islamic State claims responsibility for attack outside U.S. embassy in Nairobi

isis-flagA follower of Islamic State was responsible for an attack last week on a Kenyan police officer outside a U.S. embassy in Nairobi, the group’s Amaq news agency said on Saturday.

A knife-wielding man whom police described as a criminal was shot dead outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last Thursday after he attacked and injured a Kenyan police officer.

“The person who carried out the stabbing of a guard outside the American embassy in Nairobi last Thursday was a soldier of Islamic State responding to calls to target coalition countries,” Amaq said.

kenya-map-1Kenya’s police spokesman said at the time the motive was unclear and an investigation was launched. The spokesman could not immediately be reached on Saturday.

Islamic State previously claimed an attack in Kenya in September by three women who were shot dead after they tricked their way into a police station in Mombasa and tried to torch the building, according to police. The police in Kenya have also previously said they had detained sympathizers with the group.

But experts say it is not clear how close the connection is between groups and individuals proclaiming allegiance to the Islamist group and the Islamic State organization in its Middle East heartland of Syria and Iraq, where it is increasingly pressure from regional and international forces.