Return of possible remains by North Korea boosts diplomacy

A UN honor guard carries a box containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War after arriving from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon. Pool)
Updated 28 July 2018
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Return of possible remains by North Korea boosts diplomacy

  • Trump thanks North Korean leader for “fulfilling a promise” to return the remains of US soldiers
  • Close to 7,700 US soldiers remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for “fulfilling a promise” to return the remains of US soldiers missing from the Korean War, as a US military plane made a rare trip into North Korea to retrieve 55 cases said to contain remains.
Close to 7,700 US soldiers remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea.
North Korea’s move signals a positive step in Trump’s diplomacy with Pyongyang, and may restart efforts to send US teams into the country to search for additional war dead.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned that the transfer of remains “is separate” from what has so far been troubled efforts to negotiate the complete denuclearization of North Korea. But he said it was a step in the right direction following the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.
“This is obviously a gesture of carrying forward what they agreed to in Singapore and we take it as such,” Mattis told reporters Friday. “We also look at it as a first step of a restarted process. So we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home.”
Despite soaring rhetoric about denuclearization before the Singapore meeting, the summit ended with only a vague aspirational goal for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when and how that would occur.
Subsequent talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean officials got off to a rocky start earlier this month, with the North accusing the Americans of making “unilateral and gangster-like” demands on denuclearization. On Wednesday, Pompeo said a great deal of work remains ahead of a North Korea denuclearization deal, but he declined to provide any timeline.
Trump, addressing reporters on the South Lawn, said Vice President Mike Pence would greet the families and the remains of the soldiers.
“We have many others coming, but I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me, and I’m sure that he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search,” Trump said.
“These incredible American heroes will soon lay at rest on sacred American soil,” he added.
Pence, the son of a Korean War combat veteran, said in a statement that he will participate in the ceremony when the remains arrive in the US United Nations Command said the remains will be flown to Hawaii immediately after a full honors ceremony in Seoul on Wednesday.
“It is deeply humbling to be part of this historic moment,” Pence said. “We will never forget the sacrifices these brave service members and their families made for our nation and our freedoms.”
Early Friday morning in Korea, a US Air Force C-17 transport plane made a rare trip into North Korea to retrieve 55 cases of what are believed to be remains from the Korean War. The aircraft then flew from Wonsan to Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, near the South Korean capital of Seoul.
At the air base, US servicemen and a military honor guard lined up on the tarmac to receive the remains, which were carried in boxes covered in blue UN flags. Officials in North Korea had no comment on the handover, which came on the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
Once the cases arrive in Hawaii, a series of forensic examinations will be done to determine if the remains are human and if the dead were American or allied troops killed in the conflict.
Mattis underscored that looming question, saying “we don’t know who’s in those boxes.” But he said the gesture is important for families of the fallen, which could include any of the allies that also fought in the war.
“We have families that when they got the telegram, have never had closure,” Mattis said. “They’ve never gone out and had the body returned.”
More than 36,000 US troops died in the conflict, including those listed as missing in action.
The repatriation of remains could be followed by stronger North Korean demands for fast-tracked discussions to formally end the war, which was stopped with an armistice and not a peace treaty. South Korea’s Defense Ministry also said the North agreed to general-level military talks next week at a border village to discuss reducing tensions across the countries’ heavily armed border.
The remains are believed to be some of the more than 200 that North Korea has held in storage for some time, and were likely recovered from land during farming or construction. The vast majority of the war dead, however, have yet to be located and retrieved from cemeteries and battlefields across the countryside.
Efforts to recover American war dead had been stalled for more than a decade because of a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program and a previous US claim that security arrangements for its personnel working in the North were insufficient.
From 1996 to 2005, joint US-North Korea military search teams conducted 33 recovery operations that collected 229 sets of American remains. The last time North Korea turned over remains was in 2007, when Bill Richardson, a former UN ambassador and New Mexico governor, secured the return of six sets.
Washington has said Pyongyang wouldn’t get sanctions relief and significant security and economic rewards unless it firmly commits to a process of completely and verifiably eliminating its nuclear weapons. There are lingering doubts about whether Kim would ever agree to fully relinquish his nukes, which he may see as a stronger guarantee of survival than whatever security assurance the United States could offer.


How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Updated 30 min 56 sec ago
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How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
  • Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.

Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal, band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the fact that foreigners were targeted.

“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath) group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”

Caption

As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.

 

TIMELINE OF SRI LANKA BLASTS

 

April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.

8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
east coast.

1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.

2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.

8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.

April 22

4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.

8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.