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Obama to Putin: Press pro-Russia forces to disarm
by Stephen Collinson
In latest tense phone call, Russian president tells US counterpart Moscow not ‘meddling’ in neighbor’s affairs.
AFP - US President Barack Obama urged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday to press pro-Moscow groups to lay down their arms in Ukraine amid escalating tensions.
In the call requested by Moscow, Obama “emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized,” the White House said in a statement.
The two presidents confronted one another in telephone talks Monday as a standoff over Ukraine escalated after the CIA chief visited Kiev and a Russian war plane “buzzed” a US destroyer.
The Kremlin said that Putin used the latest in a string of tense phone calls with Obama to brand US charges of meddling in eastern Ukraine as “unfounded.”
Washington, meanwhile, said it was consulting European allies and hinted that more sanctions on Russia’s economy could be coming, to punish what it sees as Moscow’s sponsorship of pro-Russia violence in eastern Ukraine.
Unusually, the White House also offered some details of CIA chief John Brennan’s itinerary, confirming Russian media reports that the top US spy had flown into Kiev over the weekend.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had demanded an explanation over Brennan’s visit.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source as saying Brennan recommended Kiev use force against pro-Russian militants in eastern districts.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney blasted claims that Brennan’s travel was anything but routine — and said he was revealing it to rebut “false claims” laid by Russia.
“Senior-level visits of intelligence officials are a standard means of fostering mutually beneficial security cooperation, including US-Russian intelligence collaboration going back to the beginnings of the post-Cold War era,” he said.
“To imply that US officials meeting with their counterparts (in Kiev) is anything other than in the same spirit is absurd.”
While Carney also denied that a new Cold War was brewing between Russia and the United States, an incident involving a Russian jet over the Black Sea and a US cruise missile destroyer did hark back to the tensions of that earlier era.
The Pentagon said the Su-24 fighter made several low-altitude, high-speed passes near the USS Donald Cook, cruising in international waters off Romania over the weekend.
“The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from Donald Cook,” said Colonel Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
“This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements on a professional interaction between our militaries.”
The vessel was sent to the Black Sea in a show of Washington’s solidarity with its Eastern European NATO allies concerned about Russia’s incursion into Crimea.
The plane was about 1,000 meters from the American ship but did not directly traverse its decks, a military official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The White House and the State Department signaled fresh sanctions could be coming for Russia over what Washington says are provocations in eastern Ukraine, including the seizure of administrative and police buildings by Moscow-backed armed groups.
“We feel very strongly that the pattern of activities bear striking similarities to the situation in Crimea ahead of the illegal Russian occupation and purported annexation of that part of Ukraine,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“All evidence points to the likelihood that these are individuals with strong ties to the Russian government who are causing these conflicts in eastern Ukraine.”
In a new sign of US pressure on European allies, Obama spoke to French President Francois Hollande by telephone.
Hollande spoke of France’s “determination to put in place, with its European partners, a policy of firm, progressive sanctions,” his office said.
In a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, Obama had warned that the EU and the United States should be prepared to meet further Russian escalations with tougher sanctions.
Washington and the EU have already imposed sanctions on key individuals in Crimea and officials around Putin and several Kremlin-linked firms.
Western nations have warned they could go after the Russian economy, including in the mining, finance and energy sectors, if Moscow does not change course.
But since such a move could also harm fragile European economies, they remain a political heavy lift for many of the continent’s leaders.
The EU agreed to extend a list of asset freezes and visa bans on top Russian officials, but held off on tougher measures until after a meeting of key officials from the EU, United States, Ukraine and Russia in Geneva on Thursday.
Psaki defended the meeting, amid complaints in Washington that it was irrelevant to fast-escalating events.
“We feel there should always be an opportunity and an opening for diplomacy,” she said.
As part of its steps to support Ukraine’s tottering economy, Washington also formally signed a $1 billion loan guarantee for Kiev, passed by Congress earlier this month.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew signed the deal with Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak in Washington.
US Postal Service Joins in Federal Ammo Purchases
by Cheryl K. Chumley
Add the U.S. Postal Service to the list of federal agencies seeking to purchase what some Second Amendment activists say are alarmingly large quantities of ammunition.
Earlier this year, the USPS posted a notice on its website, under the heading "Assorted Small Arms Ammunition," that says: "The United States Postal Service intends to solicit proposals for assorted small arms ammunition. If your organization wishes to participate, you must pre-register. This message is only a notification of our intent to solicit proposals."
Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Washington-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said: "We're seeing a highly unusual amount of ammunition being bought by the federal agencies over a fairly short period of time. To be honest, I don't understand why the federal government is buying so much at this time."
Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs and government relations for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said widely reported federal ammunition purchases have sparked conspiracy-type fears among gun owners, who worry that the federal government is trying to crack down on Second Amendment rights via the back door by limiting the ammo available to owners.
It's not just the USPS that is stocking up on ammo.
A little more than a year ago, the Social Security Administration put in a request for 174,000 rounds of ".357 Sig 125 grain bonded jacketed hollow-point" bullets.
Before that, it was the Department of Agriculture requesting 320,000 rounds. More recently, the Department of Homeland Security raised eyebrows with its request for 450 million rounds — at about the same time the FBI separately sought 100 million hollow-point rounds.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also requested 46,000 rounds.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, asked: why exactly does a weather service need ammunition?
"NOAA — really? They have a need? One just doesn't know why they're doing this," he said. "The problem is, all these agencies have their own SWAT teams, their own police departments, which is crazy. In theory, it was supposed to be the U.S. marshals that was the armed branch for the federal government."
Armed federal employees are often assigned to offices of investigative services, the offices of inspectors general, or other equally bureaucratic agencies.
For instance, regular Internal Revenue Service agents aren't equipped with on-the-job guns — but those affiliated with the agency's Criminal Investigations Division are.
The same goes for workers with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, with the Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General, and with the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General.
The Energy Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Commerce Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development are a few of the federal entities that boast an armed division, tasked with investigating fraud and suspected criminal activities. As such, the agents get to carry guns.
"Most of these agencies do have their own police forces," said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Gun Owners' Action League.
That, perhaps more than federal ammunition purchases, is the larger issue, he suggested, and Van Cleave agreed.
"What's the need for that? Do we really need this? That was something our Founding Fathers did not like and we should all be concerned about," Van Cleave said, speaking of the expansion of police forces throughout all levels of government.
The Department of Homeland Security employs in its various law enforcement entities — from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service to Customs and Border Protection — more than 200,000 workers, an estimated 135,000 of whom are authorized to carry weapons. When the agency makes its ammo buys, it often does so over the course of several years.
"We realize that the House is still investigating the ammo purchases by the administration, but from what we've seen so far, most representatives don't seem alarmed," said Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America.
"For example, [Georgia Republican] Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said that given all the agencies that the Department of Homeland Security purchases for, "450 million rounds really is not that large of an order," Pratt said.
McGuigan acknowledged that there was a scarcity of ammo but attributed it more to a rise in purchases by individuals.
The Obama administration's stated desire to scale back gun rights drove more in the private sector to purchase firearms — which in turn fueled ammunition sales, McGuigan said.
"Over the last few years, there's been a tremendous increase in gun ownership, [with] many more females," McGuigan said. "I think a lot of people need to be aware of what's happening, and what the federal agencies are doing. I don't think, though, they need to be overly concerned that there's not going to be any ammo left."
But the notion of the Obama administration's using backdoor means to scale back gun ownership — a move that's hardly been kept secret — doesn't seem that outlandish to some.
"I don't believe in conspiracy theories, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Gottlieb said. "The amount of ammunition they're buying up far exceeds their needs. It far exceeds what they'll use — they'll never use it all."
Time for US to forsake peace efforts, New York Times says
by Times of Israel staff
Editorial argues Israelis and Palestinians lack determined, courageous leaders needed for an accord.
An editorial in Tuesday’s New York Times called on the US government to abandon its mediation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians and focus on “other major international challenges,” asserting that no amount of American pushing and shoving could succeed when the two sides were reluctant to make peace themselves.
In the opinion piece, titled “In the Middle East, Time to Move On,” the paper stated that US President Barack Obama “made the right decision to give (peacemaking) a second try last summer” but said it had now become clear that the sides “are still unwilling to move on the core issues of the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and guarantees for Israel’s security.”
In the current climate, the editorial reasoned, continued efforts were futile. It suggested that Washington outline its principles for a viable, lasting peace agreement — a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps; an agreement that Jerusalem will be the capital of both nations — and then redirect its foreign policy efforts to other pressing global issues, such as the ongoing military tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
While a peace deal was “essential for the security of both peoples,” the paper concluded, “To achieve one will require determined and courageous leaders and populations on both sides that demand an end to the occupation. Despite the commitment of the United States, there’s very little hope of that now.”
US envoy Martin Indyk was set to return to Israel on Tuesday in a fresh bid to save the failing peace process. According to Palestinian sources another round of talks-about-talks was expected on Tuesday or Wednesday evening.
Peace efforts suffered a new blow last week when Israel said it would freeze the transfer of duties it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s applications to join 15 UN and other international treaties in breach of previous understandings.
The monthly 80 million euros ($111 million) in taxes collected by Israel represents about two-thirds of the PA’s income.
Israel also reportedly plans to suspend its participation with the Palestinians in developing a gas field off the Gaza Strip and to put a cap on Palestinian deposits in its banks.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in a meeting with ambassadors posted in Tel Aviv on Sunday, blamed the Palestinians for the rapid deterioration in the peace process.
“We were very close to an agreement with the Palestinians, a complex transaction which was being examined by the (Israeli) cabinet, but at the last moment the Palestinians broke their promises and submitted applications” to join international treaties, he charged.
“We are ready to discuss and negotiate but we will not accept unilateral steps,” Lieberman said.
The talks hit an impasse two weeks ago when Israel refused to release a group of Palestinian prisoners, objecting to freeing Israeli Arabs in the group and seeking the PA’s pledge to continue peace talks beyond a current April 29 deadline. The Palestinians then moved to join the 15 international treaties and conventions.
AFP contributed to this report.
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