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North Korea fires 3 ballistic missiles after reporting COVID outbreak

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired three ballistic missiles toward the sea off its east coast on Thursday, South Korea said, in the latest such move by the isolated country racing to advance its weapons programmes on the day it first reported a COVID-19 outbreak.

Japan’s coastguard confirmed the launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea, citing its military. The projectile appeared to fall outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, public broadcaster NHK said.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said three short-range ballistic missiles were fired from the Sunan area of the North’s capital, Pyongyang, where an international airport is located and where the North had said it fired its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-17, on March 24.

The missiles flew approximately 360 kilometres (224 miles), reaching an altitude of 90 km and a maximum velocity of Mach 5, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The firing was the first after the inauguration this week of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has signalled a hard line against the North’s weapons development.

The launch, the North’s 16th known weapons test this year, also came hours after it reported its first COVID-19 outbreak, declaring a “gravest national emergency” and ordering a national lockdown.

Yoon’s national security office issued a statement condemning the launch and saying it “deplored the duplicitous conduct” of firing ballistic missiles and ignoring the plight of its people in the middle of a COVID outbreak.

In its last weapons test on Saturday, the North used a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which it has been aggressively developing in recent years.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed late last month to expedite the country’s buildup of nuclear arsenal, amid stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.

U.S. and South Korean officials have said Pyongyang’s first nuclear test since 2017 could take place as early as this month.

World

Russian and Chinese jets patrol East Asia skies, capping Biden trip

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

By Michael Martina, Nobuhiro Kubo and Hyonhee Shin

(Reuters) -Russian and Chinese military planes conducted joint exercises to patrol the Asia-Pacific region on Tuesday in a pointed farewell to U.S. President Joe Biden as he concluded an Asia trip that rankled Beijing.

Japan scrambled jets after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace while Tokyo was hosting the leaders of the Quad group of countries, which includes the United States, said Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, who called the move a provocation.

It was the first joint military exercise by China and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to a U.S. official, and it came at the tail end of Biden’s four-day trip.

“We think it shows that China continues to be willing to closely align themselves with Russia, including through military cooperation,” a senior administration official said, adding that such actions must be planned well in advance.

“China is not walking away from Russia. Instead, the exercise shows that China is ready to help Russia defend its east while Russia fights in its west,” the official said.

Biden stressed during the trip, intended in part to counter China’s growing influence in the region, that the United States will stand with its allies and partners to push for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Beijing and Moscow declared a “no-limits” partnership just weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, and China has refused to condemn the move.

The joint patrol lasted 13 hours over the Japanese and East China seas and involved Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 jets, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement.

Planes from the Japanese and South Korean air forces shadowed the Russian and Chinese jets for part of the exercise, it said.

Tokyo conveyed “grave concerns” to both Russia and China through diplomatic channels, Kishi said at a news conference.

He characterized the incident as a likely provocation by both Beijing and Moscow on a day when Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected leader, Anthony Albanese, were meeting in Tokyo.

“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” he said, adding it was the fourth such incident since November.

Chinese naval vessels likely participated in the joint exercise, a U.S. official said.

China’s defense ministry confirmed the joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific and called it part of an annual military exercise.

On Monday, Biden angered China by saying he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan, but he said later U.S. policy toward the self-ruled democratic island had not changed. China considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory that should be reunited with the mainland.

Tuesday’s drill was the first reported since new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10. On Sunday, Yoon wrapped up his summit with Biden, where the two leaders pledged support for measures seen as countering China’s influence in the region, and criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine.

South Korea’s military said it scrambled fighter jets after at least four Chinese and four Russian warplanes entered its air defense zone.

The Russian and Chinese aircraft entered and left the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (Korea ADIZ) in the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea, several times through the day, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The aircraft, which included fighter jets and bombers from each side, did not violate South Korea’s airspace, it said.

South Korea had no warning of the apparent drills, a military source in Seoul said. When Seoul saw that the aircraft appeared to be headed toward the defense zone, it used hotlines to warn Chinese and Russian counterparts, the source said.

China responded that it was a regular exercise, the source added, while there was no response from Russia.

Unlike airspace, an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, is usually an area where countries may unilaterally demand that foreign aircraft take special steps to identify themselves, with no international laws governing ADIZs.

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Analysis: Erdogan’s vow to expand Syria operations raises stakes in Turkey-NATO row

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Turkish soldier waves a flag on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria January 28 ,2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Daren Butler, Jonathan Spicer and Maya Gebeily

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to launch military operations soon to expand safe zones already set up across Turkey’s southern borders has raised the stakes in his row with NATO partners over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.

Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.

Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring people linked to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). All 30 NATO countries must agree the Nordic states’ application to join. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident that Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.

Analysts said Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering Turkish nationalist support for his two-decade rule as he gears up for difficult elections next year. Cross-border military operations have boosted his poll ratings in the past.

Turkey has conducted three incursions into northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometres of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country, in operations targeting mainly the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

It has also stepped up military operations against PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent years.

Turkey views both groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only view the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.

Asli Aydintasbas, Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan’s move was about testing Turkey’s NATO allies.

“President Erdogan’s style of meeting international challenges is upping the ante – and it almost always works in causing NATO allies to blink,” she said.

“It worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past – why not try again.”

Erdogan said operations to combat threats from across the border would start once Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence had completed their preparations, with decisions set to be made at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.

KURDISH FACTOR

The YPG, or People’s Defence Units, are a key element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led coalition which the United States has largely relied on to fight Islamic State militants since 2014.

Commenting on Erdogan’s announcement, the SDF accused Turkey of attempting to “destabilise the region” by threatening military action in northern Syria.

The SDF also said it had shot down a Turkish drone on Sunday which it said Ankara has used for surveillance of SDF-held areas ahead of planned shelling.

“In case of any attack, of course we will resist and fight back. The international community now faces an important test: will it effectively rein in Turkey?” said Ciwan Mulla Ibrahim, spokesperson for the SDF-controlled autonomous administration in northeast Syria.

Syria’s foreign ministry in Damascus did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There was also no immediate comment from Washington.

Erdogan said the planned military operation would reveal which countries respected Turkey’s security concerns and which did not – an issue that cuts to the heart of the current NATO row.

Dareen Khalifa, analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said a Turkish military move against the YPG was always possible despite the relative calm along Turkey’s border with YPG-held areas in northern Syria since 2019.

While mediators including the United States have managed to calm tensions in recent years, “the crux of the issue – Turkish-PKK relations – hasn’t been addressed”, she said.

ELECTIONS LOOM

Erdogan hopes to leverage the issue of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO into an opportunity to achieve his long-held goal of creating a buffer zone free of Kurdish fighters along Turkey’s entire border with Syria, analysts said.

His move comes as opinion polls show support for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party sagging amid deepening economic woes. Turkey holds presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

Aydintasbas said Turkey had previously staged cross-border operations ahead of elections. But mounting a large-scale military incursion brings risks too.

As well as the YPG presence, Russia has forces deployed in the area to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. troops, Turkey-backed insurgents, Iran-backed fighters, jihadists and Syrian government forces also operate across the patchwork of territories in northern Syria.

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Russian and Chinese jets conduct patrol in East Asia, capping Biden trip

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Flags of China and Russia are displayed in this illustration picture taken March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

By Nobuhiro Kubo, Michael Martina and Hyonhee Shin

(Reuters) -Russian and Chinese military planes conducted joint exercises to patrol the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, in a pointed farewell to U.S. President Joe Biden as he concluded an Asia trip that rankled Beijing.

The joint patrol lasted 13 hours over the Japanese and East China seas and involved Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and Chinese Xian H-6 jets, the defense ministry said in a statement.

Japan’s defense minister called the exercise a provocation, while a U.S. official said it revealed the depth of the two countries’ cooperation.

Planes from the Japanese and South Korean air force shadowed the Russian and Chinese jets for part of the exercise, the Russian ministry said.

Japan scrambled jets after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace while Tokyo was hosting the leaders of the Quad grouping of countries that includes the United States, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said.

Tokyo conveyed “grave concerns” to both Russia and China through diplomatic channels, Kishi said at a news conference.

He characterised the incident as a likely provocation by both Beijing and Moscow on a day when Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected leader, Anthony Albanese, were meeting in Tokyo.

“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” he said, adding it was the fourth such incident since November.

China’s defense ministry confirmed the joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and the Western Pacific and called it part of an annual military exercise.

The move marks the first joint military exercise by China and Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to a U.S. official, and it came at the tail end of Biden’s trip.

A joint strategic bomber exercise shows the depth of the two countries’ alignment, a senior U.S. administration official said.

“We think it shows that China continues to be willing to closely align themselves with Russia, including through military cooperation,” the official said, adding that such actions must be planned well in advance.

“China is not walking away from Russia. Instead, the exercise shows that China is ready to help Russia defend its east while Russia fights in its west,” the official said.

On Monday, Biden angered China by saying he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan, but he said later U.S. policy toward the self-ruled democratic island had not changed. China considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory that should be reunited with the mainland.

Tuesday’s incursion was the first reported since new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took office on May 10. On Sunday, Yoon wrapped up his summit with Biden, where the two leaders pledged support for measures seen as countering China’s influence in the region, and criticized Russia’s war in Ukraine.

South Korea’s military said it scrambled fighter jets after at least four Chinese and four Russian warplanes entered its air defense zone.

The Russian and Chinese aircraft entered and left the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (Korea ADIZ) in the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea, several times through the day, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The aircraft, which included fighter jets and bombers from each side, did not violate South Korea’s airspace, it said.

South Korea had no warning of the apparent drills, a military source in Seoul said. When Seoul saw that the aircraft appeared to be headed toward the defense zone, it used hotlines to warn Chinese and Russian counterparts, the source said.

China responded that it was a regular exercise, the source added, while there was no response from Russia.

Unlike airspace, an air defense identification zone is usually an area where countries may unilaterally demand that foreign aircraft take special steps to identify themselves, with no international laws governing ADIZs.

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