Dutch Prosecutors Seek Motive in Utrecht Tram Shooting

Dutch prosecutors on Tuesday said they were investigating a possible “terrorist motive” behind the shooting on a tram in the city of Utrecht in which three people were killed and five wounded.

A Turkish-born man, 37-year-old Gokmen Tanis, was arrested after a seven-hour manhunt on Monday by security forces and remained in custody.

Two other men were arrested on Monday and released after being cleared of involvement. A fourth suspect was arrested on Tuesday. “His role is being further investigated,” prosecutors said in a statement.

They described Tanis as the chief suspect.

“Up to this point, a terrorist motive is seriously being considered,” prosecutors said in a statement, citing “the nature of the shooting and a letter found in the getaway car.”

But it remained unclear whether the shooter acted on political beliefs or some personal vendetta. “Other motives are not being ruled out,” the statement said.

Tanis has a history of run-ins with law enforcement. He was convicted for illegal weapons possession in 2014 and for shop lifting and burglary earlier this month.

He was released from custody on March 1, after having been detained on suspicion of rape, the Utrecht District Court said in a statement released after his arrest on Monday.

He is due to appear in court in July in relation to the rape charge, it said.

Under Dutch law Tanis must be brought before a judge by Thursday but does not yet have to be charged.

The three Dutch victims were identified as a 19-year-old woman and two men aged 28 and 49. Three others, ranging from 20 to 74 years old, were critically injured in the shooting.

Prosecutors said they had so far not been able to establish a connection between the victims and the suspected gunman.

“It’s very sad things like this happen in the world these days,” said Rene van Nieuwenhuizen, an accountant living in Utrecht, a picturesque city of 340,000. “I don’t think it will happen to me but it happens and so people get killed.”

Tanis had previously been arrested, prosecutors said, but have declined to provide details.

There was no immediate comment from Tanis or any lawyer representing him.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte convened crisis talks immediately after the incident, which came three days after a lone gunman killed 50 people in mass shootings at two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Utrecht went into lockdown in the aftermath of Monday’s shooting on a tram just after the morning rush hour.

London, Paris and several other European cities have suffered militant attacks over the past years which have killed hundreds of people and authorities are on high alert.

Flags flew at half-mast on government buildings across the Netherlands on Tuesday in tribute to the victims.

NATO to Receive First Northrop Surveillance Drone, Years Late

NATO is to receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time, the German government told lawmakers.

Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defense Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.

NATO plans to use the aircraft, a derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone, to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.

Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later. However, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program, Silberhorn said.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party, called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program, warning of spiraling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said. “They stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”

Silberhorn, in a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, said NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.

Germany, which is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiraling costs and certification problems, and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.

Fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system, but all 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support.

Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said.

He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.

NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program’s status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery.

No comment was available from Northrop.

Spain Reopens Investigation of 2004 Train Bombings 

Spain this month marked the 15th anniversary of the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people with calls to reopen investigations into the deadliest terrorist attack in the kingdom’s history, amid allegations the government covered up links between jihadist bombers and the Basque separatist group, ETA.

Spain’s highest jurisdictional court, the Audencia Nacional, announced last week it is instructing the attorney general to review classified information on the bombings and consider new evidence. Officials with the attorney general’s office have said they are forming a task force with about 200 law enforcement officers to handle the extensive analysis and security work that may be required if the the politically-charged case is reopened.

At remembrance services in Madrid, conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado called on the government to “declassifiy any information that helps get to the truth, which,” he warned,  “someone may try to conceal or use in some way.”

Jose Luis Avalos, a spokesman for the Socialist government, accused Casado of playing politics with the suffering of victims and said the conservative Popular Party had “built a great lie” around  the terrorist attacks that took place when it was in power.

At the time of the bombings, Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar initially blamed ETA.  Evidence later surfaced pointing to Islamic terrorists as the ones who put a total of ten explosive devices on commuter trains and at rail stations in various parts of Madrid, all going off within minutes of each other.  

Bombings just before elections

The attacks took place just three days before scheduled general elections which the socialists won handily by campaigning on the Aznar government’s  failure to identify the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks to ever hit Europe.

Al-Qaida claimed the coordinated bombings were punishment for Spain’s alliance with the United States and Britain for the invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf War. Immediately upon replacing Aznar, Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew the 5,000 troops that Spain had contributed to the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq. 

An investigation conducted under the socialist government assigned full blame for the bombings to a group of about 20 mostly Moroccan-born suspects who had records as petty criminals and drug dealers and who authorities said had been recruited by al-Qaida in Spain.

Some analysts have since cast doubts on the investigation, which critics say fell short of explaining how the attacks were organized and ignored evidence pointing to possible involvement by the Basque separatist group. 

“Zapatero did not allow the security services and the attorney general to weave the threads leading  to ETA  because it wouldn’t fit his needle hole,”  charged investigative journalist Luis del Pino, who has written a book and made a documentary on the bombings.

Link to ETA

The head of the Islamic cell charged with conducting the train bombings, Jamal Ahmidan, operated for years as an underworld drug dealer and gunman in the Basque city San Sebastian, an ETA stronghold.

Suarez Trashorras, the supplier of stolen dynamite used in the attacks, told police that Ahmidan had said he knew two members of ETA who had been arrested while moving tons of explosives days before he picked up the dynamite, according to the newspaper El Mundo.  

Ahmidan died along with the six other suspected train bombers when an explosion demolished their hideout during a siege by police. 

But a forensic analysis that raised suspicions of possible ETA links was omitted from an official report on the bombings submitted to a Spanish judge  leading the investigations in 2005 according to police officials. The same sources have told  journalists that traces of boric acid found at an apartment rented by one of the bombers had been only been detected previously at an ETA safe house.

Missing information

The analysts said that it was a rare method used to preserve or conceal explosives from detection. 

“This brings us  to the possibility that the author (or) authors of these acts are related among each other and/or may have had the same type of formation  and/or could be the same authors,” according to the forensic report prepared by the police scientific unit that later turned up among documents requested by former interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.

Former National Police Director General Agustin Diaz de Mera has said that police officials who elaborated the official report left out the information due to “political pressures.”

Spanish Far-right Vox Enlists Ex-generals to Run for Parliament 

Spanish far-right party Vox has signed up three former generals to run for parliament in next month’s general election, two of whom expressed support for the legacy of former right-wing dictator Francisco Franco by signing a petition last year. 

 

The inclusion of openly pro-Franco candidates with senior military backgrounds underscores the ground that Vox has broken in a country that had largely shied away from far-right, militaristic politics since Franco’s rule ended with his death in 1975. 

 

Former Gens. Agustin Rosety and Alberto Asarta will run as parliamentary candidates for the provinces of Cadiz and Castellon, Vox said. Another former general, Manuel Mestre, is running in Alicante, according to the party. Vox had already enlisted another general to run for mayor in Palma de Mallorca. 

 

Rosety and Asarta signed a manifesto last year in support of Franco’s legacy, including the military uprising that ignited the 1936-39 Spanish civil war and resulted in his rule until 1975. 

 

Asarta signed the manifesto last year, according to a copy of it, while Rosety has signed it subsequently, said local media.  

The manifesto, which was has been signed by about 600 former members of the armed forces, was issued as a response to the Socialist government’s plans to remove Franco’s remains from a state mausoleum outside Madrid, according to the promoters. The mausoleum has long been seen by critics as a monument to fascism. 

 

Latest opinion polls show support for Vox, which opposes gender equality laws and immigration and has a strong stance against independence for Spain’s regions, as high as 12.1 percent. That could translate into 38 seats in the national parliament at the April 28 election. 

 

Vox grabbed attention last year when it became the first far-right party in Spain in more than four decades to score an electoral victory, winning seats in a local election in Andalusia. 

 

The Franco mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen has long been a source of controversy. The Socialist government said last Friday that the dictator’s body would be removed on June 10 and reburied in the family tomb at a state cemetery outside Madrid.

Canada to Extend Military Training Missions in Ukraine, Iraq

Canada will keep a 200-strong military training mission in Ukraine for another three years to help domestic security forces handle continuing tensions with Russia, Ottawa said on Monday.

The Canadian troops, who first went to Ukraine in September 2015, had been due out at the end of March but will now stay until March 2022. News of the extension was first reported by Reuters on Sunday.

“Ongoing insecurity in the region underscores the importance and relevance of Canada’s military mission,” the government said in a statement.

The Canadian training “directly helps Ukraine’s defense and security forces to uphold domestic security and territorial integrity”, it added.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is a vocal critic of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The peninsula had previously been part of Ukraine.

The Canadians are in western Ukraine, far removed from clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

They have trained more than 10,800 members of the Ukrainian security forces, the statement said. The troops are part of a larger mission that involves the United States, Britain, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.

Ottawa also said it would extend a lower-profile training mission in Iraq, where Canada has around 250 personnel. They will now remain in place until March 2021.

“The Canadian Armed Forces will continue to provide training, advice, and assistance to the Iraqi security forces,” the statement said.

Last November Canada assumed command of NATO Mission Iraq, a new non-combat training and capacity building endeavor.

In late 2016 Canadian officials said the trainers – who at that point were operating with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq – had clashed several dozen times with Islamic State militants over the course of a month.

Since then several major offensives in Iraq and Syria pushed Islamic State back and it now occupies a tiny plot of territory in Syria.

French Military Minister Expresses Concern About Long-term US Commitment to NATO

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on Monday that Europe was concerned about the United States’ long-term commitment to NATO and implicitly criticized President Donald Trump’s approach towards the military alliance.

Trump, as the alliance’s de facto leader, has made defense spending a priority after years of defense cuts following the 1945-90 Cold War. He has questioned NATO’s value to Washington.

“What Europeans are worried about is this: will the U.S. commitment be perennial?,” Parly said during an event in Washington. She will meet with her American counterpart at the Pentagon on Monday to discuss issues including Syria.

“The alliance should be unconditional, otherwise it is not an alliance. NATO’s solidarity clause is called Article 5, not article F-35,” Parly added, in a reference to the Lockheed-Martin F-35 jet fighter. She did not mention Trump specifically.

NATO treaty’s Article 5 is a provision that means an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all of them. Trump has been a strong proponent of military products made by U.S. defense companies.

In December, Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary. Mattis, who was seen as a reassuring presence by European allies, mentioned NATO twice in his resignation letter and laid bare what he saw as an irreparable divide between himself and Trump.

In the past Trump has called NATO obsolete. He has also pushed NATO allies to spend more on defense and during a NATO meeting in July, told them in a closed-door meeting that governments needed to raise spending to 2 percent of economic output or the United States would go its own way.

Parly also said that a push towards greater European autonomy should not be seen as a move against the United States and should not lead to Washington being less engaged in the region.

Trump lashed out at French President Emmanuel Macron in November, saying it was “very insulting” for him to suggest Europe should create its own army to protect itself from potential adversaries.

Macron had said that Europe needed a real army to reduce reliance on the United States for defense in the face of a resurgent Russia.

EU Welcomes Azerbaijan’s Amnesty for 400 Political Activists

The European Union has welcomed Azerbaijan’s decision to give amnesty to a number of political activists and journalists.

European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the amnesty for over 400 people included representatives of political parties, nongovernment organizations, bloggers and journalists, calling it “a welcome step.”

Kocijancic said “the European Union expects that further similar steps will follow in future in line with Azerbaijan’s international commitments.” She added the EU will “continue its engagement with Azerbaijan to step up the cooperation, including on human rights, which constitutes an essential element of our relationship.”

Azerbaijan has maintained close ties with the West, helping protect its energy and security interests in the Caspian Sea. At the same time, it has long faced criticism in the West for alleged human rights abuses and the suppression of dissent.

France Seeks Answers After Police Failed to Stop Paris Riots

French President Emmanuel Macron summoned top security officials Monday after police failed to contain resurgent rioting during yellow vest protests that transformed a luxurious Paris avenue into a battle scene.

The prime minister promised to announce new measures later Monday to avoid a repeat scenario of Saturday’s violence, in which rioters set life-threatening fires, ransacked luxury stores and attacked police around the Champs-Elysees.

The new surge in violence came as the 4-month-old yellow vest movement demanding economic justice has been dwindling. Images of the destruction — including from a bank fire that engulfed a residential building and threatened the lives of a mother and child — could further erode public support.

But the renewed attention energized some protesters, who took to social networks to call for new protests this Saturday to occupy the avenue to demand lower taxes and more worker support from big business.

High-end boutiques along the Champs-Elysees remained closed and boarded up Monday, some of them ransacked and charred from arson fires set by rioters.

One of the security officials meeting Monday with Macron, junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez, acknowledged that the French police response to Saturday’s rioting was “a failure.”

Nunez said Monday on RTL radio that police had prepared for an upsurge in violence but the protesters were exceptionally radicalized. He said police were “less reactive” Saturday than in previous demonstrations, and notably more cautious about using rubber ball launchers because of numerous injuries they’ve caused at previous protests.

Protesters had tried to raise their profile Saturday to mark end of a national debate that Macron had organized to respond to protesters’ concerns about sinking living standards, stagnant wages and high unemployment. Many demonstrators, especially from the political extremes, feel the debate didn’t address their real demands.

NATO, EU Condemn Russia’s 2014 Seizure of Crimea

NATO and the European Union are condemning Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula five years after Moscow declared the region Russian territory.

NATO allies said in a statement Monday that “we strongly condemn this act, which we do not and will not recognize.”

They also criticized Russia’s military buildup in Crimea and alleged rights abuses including “arbitrary detentions, arrest, and torture” against members of the Crimean Tartar community.

EU foreign ministers are marking the fifth anniversary of the annexation.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said: “We stand in full solidarity with Ukraine, supporting its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

NATO and the EU also called for the release of Ukrainian sailors detained by the Russian navy and coast guard in waters off Ukraine in November.

UK Prime Minister in Last-Minute Push to Win Brexit Support

British Prime Minister Theresa May was making a last-minute push Monday to win support for her European Union divorce deal, warning opponents that failure to approve it would mean a long — and possibly indefinite — delay to Brexit.

Parliament has rejected the agreement twice, but May aims to try a third time this week if she can persuade enough lawmakers to change their minds. Her aim is to have the deal agreed before EU leaders meet Thursday for a summit in Brussels.

 

May’s goal is to win over Northern Ireland’s small, power-brokering Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP’s 10 lawmakers prop up May’s Conservative government, and their support could influence pro-Brexit Conservatives to drop their opposition to the deal.

 

Still, May faces a struggle to reverse the huge margins of defeat for the agreement in Parliament. It was rejected by 230 votes in January and by 149 votes last week.

 

Influential Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would wait to see what the DUP decided before making up his mind on whether to support May’s deal.

 

“No deal is better than a bad deal, but a bad deal is better than remaining in the European Union,” he told LBC radio.

 

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday he saw “cautious signs of encouragement” that the deal might make it through Parliament this week.

 

After months of political deadlock, British lawmakers voted last week to seek to postpone Brexit. That will likely avert a chaotic British withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29 — although the power to approve or reject a Brexit extension lies with the EU, whose leaders are fed up with British prevarication.

 

May is likely to ask for an extension at the Brussels summit, and EU leaders say they will only grant it if Britain has a solid plan for what to do with the extra time.

 

“We have to know what the British want: How long, what is the reason supposed to be, how it should go, what is actually the aim of the extension?” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels. “The longer it is delayed, the more difficult it will certainly be.”

 

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders agreed, saying: “We are not against an extension in Belgium, but the problem is — to do what?”

 

Opposition to May’s deal centers on a measure designed to ensure there is no hard border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.

 

The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. Brexit supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely, and the DUP fears it could lead to a weakening of the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

 

Talks between the government and the DUP are aimed at reassuring the party that Britain could not be trapped in the backstop indefinitely.

 

May has said that if her deal is approved by Parliament this week, she will ask the EU to delay Brexit until June 30 so that Parliament has time to approve the necessary legislation. If it isn’t, she will have to seek a longer extension that could mean Britain participating in May 23-26 elections for the European Parliament.

 

May said in an article for the Sunday Telegraph that failure to approve the deal meant “we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever.”

 

“The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about,” she wrote.

 

But May suffered a setback Monday when former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson refused to support her deal.

 

Johnson, a staunch Brexiteer, used his column in the Daily Telegraph to argue that the backstop left the U.K. vulnerable to “an indefinite means of blackmail” by Brussels.