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U.S. warship sails through Taiwan Strait amid heightened China tensions

TAIPEI (Reuters) – A U.S. warship passed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, the U.S. and Taiwan militaries said, following heightened tensions between China and Taiwan that has seen Taiwanese air force jets scramble to intercept Chinese fighters.

The ship sailed north through the waterway and was monitored by Taiwan’s armed forces, the island’s defense ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

It described the sailing as an “ordinary mission”, saying there was no cause for alarm.

Anthony Junco, a spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said the ship was the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell, which conducted “a routine Taiwan Strait transit March 25 (local time) in accordance with international law”.

“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” he said.

Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial and diplomatic issue and Beijing has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control. The narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the island from China is a frequent source of tension.

In recent weeks China’s air force has carried out several exercises close to Taiwan, causing Taiwan’s mostly U.S.-equipped military to scramble fighters to intercept and warn away the Chinese aircraft.

Taiwan has called the Chinese drills provocative and has called on China to pay more attention to fighting the spread of the coronavirus rather than menacing Taiwan.

The United States, like most countries, has no official relations with Taiwan, but is the island’s most important international supporter and main source of arms.

In January another U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait less than a week after President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election by a landslide on a platform of standing up to China.

Tsai visited a military base on Tuesday and again warned of the threat from China during the virus outbreak.

“Everyone knows that although at present there is an intense epidemic situation, the Chinese Communist’s military aircraft continue to harass Taiwan; their threat to Taiwan and regional security has not gone down,” she said.

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Two seriously injured U.S. troops being treated in Baghdad: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two of the three U.S. troops wounded in the latest rocket attack in Iraq are seriously injured and are being treated at a military hospital in Baghdad, the Pentagon said on Saturday, in its first confirmation that Americans were injured.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman declined to speculate on potential U.S. responses but, in a statement, cited Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s warning last week: “You cannot attack and wound American Service Members and get away with it, we will hold them to account.”

Hoffman added that Iraqi security forces had made an initial arrest and added the United States was assisting with the investigation into the attack, the second in less than a week at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. Iraqi forces were also injured.

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Iraqi military says 33 rockets used in Taji base attack

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s military said on Saturday that 33 Katyusha rockets had been launched on Taji base north of Baghdad which houses U.S.-led coalition troops and said the attack critically injured several Iraqi air defense servicemen.

The military found seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area, it said in a statement, and promised to arrest those responsible.

The military said the U.S. or other foreign forces should not use the attack as pretext to take military action without Iraq’s approval. It called on all foreign troops to quickly implement a parliamentary resolution calling for their withdrawal.

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U.S. air strikes in Iraq killed six people: Iraqi military

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s military condemned overnight U.S. air strikes on Friday and said they had killed six people and wounded 12, describing it as targeted aggression against the nation’s formal armed forces and a violation of sovereignty.

The Pentagon said the strikes targeted five weapons stores used by Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups, including facilities housing arms used in past attacks on U.S.-led coalition troops. But an Iraqi military statement said no paramilitary fighters had been killed.

Three soldiers, two policemen and one civilian were killed, it said. Four soldiers, two policemen, one civilian, and five militiamen were wounded, the military said.

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Pentagon chief says all options on table after Iraq rocket attack

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that all options were on the table after a rocket attack in Iraq killed one British and two American troops, an attack he said was by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups.

“Yesterday’s attack by Iranian backed Shia militia groups, consisted of multiple indirect fires that originated from a stationary platform and was clearly targeting coalition and partnered forces on Camp Taji,” Esper told reporters.

“Let me be clear, the United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests, or our allies,” Esper said.

“All options are on the table as we work with our partners to bring the perpetrators to justice and maintain deterrence,” he added.

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UK demands action to find perpetrators of Iraq rocket attack

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain on Thursday demanded Iraqi authorities take action to hold to account those responsible for a rocket attack in Iraq which killed one British and two American personnel.

“We must find those responsible. I welcome the Iraqi President’s call for an immediate investigation to hold perpetrators to account – but we must see action,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.

Raab also said he had spoken with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday night, and the two had agreed that “it is essential to defend against these deplorable acts.”

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U.S.-led coalition confirms three personnel killed in Iraq rocket attack

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State confirmed on Wednesday that three personnel had been killed in a rocket attack on a military camp in Iraq and that about a dozen additional personnel were wounded.

In a statement, the coalition said that approximately 18 Katyusha rockets struck the base.

“The attack is under investigation by the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces,” the statement said.

Earlier Reuters reported that two American personnel and one from Britain were killed and about a dozen people were wounded when at least 15 small rockets hit Iraq’s Taji military camp north of Baghdad.

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Two U.S., one British personnel killed in Iraq rocket attack: officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two American personnel and one from Britain were killed and about a dozen people were wounded when 15 small rockets hit Iraq’s Taji military camp north of Baghdad on Wednesday, two U.S. officials told Reuters, citing early information.

The officials said it was too soon to assign blame. Any indication that Iran-backed militia were responsible could spark a new round of confrontation between the United States and Iran.

The last military escalation led to a U.S. strike in January that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which, in turn, led Iran to fire missiles at a base in Iraq hosting U.S. forces, leaving more than 100 troops with brain injuries.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued the strike was necessary to deter Iran from additional attacks.

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

Earlier on Wednesday, the Iraqi military said no casualties had been reported in the attack.

Iran-backed paramilitary groups have regularly been rocketing and shelling bases in Iraq that host U.S. forces and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

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The Kataib Hezbollah militia was blamed for an attack on a base last year which killed an American contractor, which led to retaliatory U.S. strikes against it in Iraq and Syria.

Syrian state media reported on Wednesday that unidentified jets hit targets southeast of a Syrian town along the border with Iraq.

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Turkey's Erdogan accuses Greece of Nazi tactics against migrants at border

ISTANBUL/ATHENS (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Greek security forces on Wednesday of behaving like Nazis for using force against migrants trying to cross the border from Turkey into the European Union.

Tens of thousands of migrants have been attempting to get into EU member Greece since Turkey said on Feb. 28 it would no longer keep them on its territory as part of a 2016 deal with Brussels in return for European aid for the refugees.

Greek security forces have used tear gas and water cannon to stop the migrants. Athens has suspended asylum applications for a month and says it has prevented more than 42,000 illegal migrants illegally entering the EU over the past two weeks.

In the Turkish parliament, Erdogan showed lawmakers of his ruling AK Party video footage of scenes at the Greek border.

“There is no difference between those images on the Greek border and what the Nazis did,” he said.

“Opening fire on innocent people, exposing them to all kinds of inhumane treatment… (It) is barbarism in the full sense of the word,” he said, repeating his call on Greece to let migrants cross its territory to reach richer western European countries.

“Why are you obstructing them so much and carrying out Nazi tortures on them?” he added.

Turkey has previously accused Greek security forces of shooting dead four migrants, a claim rejected by Athens as “fake news”. Greece says it has a duty to protect the EU border.

KNOCK ON THE DOOR, SAYS GREECE

Responding to Erdogan’s latest comments, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said: “He is constantly trying to torpedo the climate with such statements.”

“We tell everyone that they shouldn’t attempt to get in through the window. There is a door. Whoever is entitled to protection should knock on that door and be entitled to protection based on international law,” Petsas added.

Petsas also denied a report in The New York Times that said Greece was holding illegal migrants at a secret “black site” where they are denied access to lawyers and cannot file asylum claims.

Greece summoned Turkey’s ambassador on Wednesday to lodge a complaint after the Greek coastguard said one of its vessels had been rammed deliberately by a Turkish coastguard boat. There was no immediate comment from Ankara on the incident.

The EU is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 migrant crisis, when more than one million people, mostly fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond, reached the bloc via Turkey and Greece, bolstering support for far-right parties.

That mass influx ended when Turkey agreed in 2016 to keep migrants on its territory in return for EU aid. Erdogan said Ankara had upheld its side of the deal but that the EU had not.

“Until all expectations are met in a concrete way, we will continue our current practice at our borders,” Erdogan said, referring to aspirations that also include updating Turkey’s customs union with the EU, reviving its stalled EU accession bid and allowing Turks to visit the bloc without visas.

Turkey hosts 3.6 million refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria and is braced for the arrival of more as fighting in Syria drags on.

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Greece denies report of secret 'black site' for migrants near Turkish border

ATHENS (Reuters) – The Greek government dismissed on Wednesday a report in The New York Times newspaper that it was holding illegal migrants who cross the border from Turkey at a secret “black site” where they are denied access to lawyers and cannot file asylum claims.

Tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to get into Greece, a European Union member state, since Turkey said on Feb. 28 it would no longer keep them on its territory as part of a 2016 deal with Brussels in return for EU aid for the refugees.

Greece has used tear gas and water cannon to deter the migrants and says it has stopped more than 42,000 people from entering its territory over the past two weeks.

In its article, The New York Times quoted migrants who said they had been captured by Greek security forces, stripped and beaten and held in a complex of buildings near the border.

Using satellite imagery and mobile phone data, the newspaper said the site was near the village of Poros, in the northeast, not far from the Greek-Turkish border in the Evros river delta.

“There is no secret detention center in Greece,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters, adding that if an international newspaper knew about the site, it wasn’t secret.

“All issues related to guarding the borders or issues of security are transparent. The constitution is being applied… and there is nothing secret.”

On March 3, Greece passed a decree suspending asylum applications for a month and allowing for the immediate deportation of any migrants seized crossing the border.

Erdogan’s decision to open the border appears designed to put pressure on the EU to provide more aid for some 3.6 million refugees and migrants Turkey is hosting. Ankara says it has received only about half of some 6 billion euros promised by the EU under the 2016 deal for the refugees.

The New York Times article, citing video evidence and witness testimony, also alleged that Mohammed Yaarub, a 22-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who was shot dead near the border last week, had been killed by a Greek security officer.

Petsas, the government spokesman, reiterated Greece’s previous denials that its forces have killed any migrants.

“We have categorically denied there was such an issue, at least on the part of Greece … This is organized Turkish propaganda and the spreading of fake news,” he said.

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