The NewsFuror

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Guam crash for B-2 stealth bomber

A US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber during refuelling, US Department of Defense file photograph from 2006
The US Air Force has 21 B-2 stealth bombers, each costing $1.2 bn
A US B-2 stealth bomber - one of the world's most expensive planes - has crashed for the first time on the Pacific island of Guam.

The jet crashed shortly after taking off from the island's Andersen Air Force Base, but both pilots ejected and survived, the US Air Force (USAF) said.

Black smoke could be seen billowing from the site, witnesses said.

The B-2 bomber costs $1.2 bn and is capable of deploying both conventional and nuclear weapons.

Crowds gathered as emergency vehicles attended the scene after the crash, which happened around 1045 local time (0045 GMT).

No mission details

Both pilots had been medically evaluated and were "in good condition", the USAF said.

B-2 stealth bomber
B-2 bombers have seen service in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan

A board of officers will investigate the causes of the incident.

A brief USAF statement did not provide details of the bomber's mission in Guam, a US territory 6,000 km (3,700 miles) south-west of Hawaii.

The USAF has 21 B-2 bombers based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, but several have been rotated through Guam since 2004.

The craft have been used for missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.

Able to fly 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 kilometres) without refuelling, the B-2 can evade most radar signals making it difficult for defensive systems to detect, track and attack.

US will back new Iran sanctions

Condoleezza Rice on 22 December 2008
The US wants a new resolution on Iran agreed 'with some dispatch'
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there is a "very strong case" for a third round of sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.

She spoke as the UN nuclear agency said it could offer no "credible assurances" that Iran was not building a bomb.

UN Security Council members the US, UK, China, France and Russia meet on Monday in Washington to mull their next step.

But Iran's top nuclear negotiator said the UN report backed Tehran's claim its nuclear programme was peaceful.

Tehran refuses to stop enriching uranium, insisting its work is aimed purely at generating electricity.

Travel bans

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report did praise Iran for granting its inspectors access to previously off-limits sites, but said it remained evasive on key issues.

Satellite image of Iran's of Bushehr nuclear reactor (archive)
Tehran says its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes

The nuclear watchdog struck a deal last August with Iran on a timetable to resolve questions over aspects of its past nuclear activities.

But Friday's report said Tehran had evaded a proper response to claims it had made secret efforts to "weaponise" nuclear material.

It had also ducked questions about alleged high explosives testing and design work on a missile warhead, the IAEA found, noting: "This is a matter of serious concern."

Iran was also still openly enriching uranium in defiance of UN resolutions and testing advanced centrifuges to speed up the process, said the inspectors.

The US secretary of state said: "This report demonstrates that whatever the Iranians may be doing to try to clean up some elements of the past, it is inadequate given their current activities.

"What we all have to worry about... is the future in which Iran could start to perfect the technologies that could lead to a nuclear weapon."

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told reporters: "This report showed that our activities are peaceful."

Map of Iran nuclear sites

But BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus says the IAEA findings are definitely not a clean bill of health.

On Thursday, Britain and France introduced a UN Security Council resolution - a draft of which was approved last month - with support from the US, Russia, China and Germany.

It seeks to expand the number of Iranian companies targeted by sanctions and impose travel bans on certain Iranian officials.

A declassified US intelligence report last December judged that the Iranians had put a nuclear weapons program on hold in 2003.

But the US, Israel and others contend Iran's continued advances in the crucial centrifuge work will eventually give it a capability to build a bomb.

Turkey border tensions fuel confusion

Turkish soldiers during an operation against Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq (Image released by Turkish Army on 22 February)
The operation along the rugged, snowbound border is limited
The Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq has apparently turned out to be on a considerably lesser scale than initial reports had suggested.

Iraqi Kurdish officials and US-led coalition sources said only a few hundred Turkish troops at most took part in the cross-border operation.

The Iraqi Kurds - always on the look-out for any Turkish move that might be construed as an attempt against their own autonomous region - said the incursion took place in a remote, rugged and unpopulated sector of the border, where heavy snows hamper movement at this time of the year.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who control the part of northern Iraq south of the Turkish border, had no contact with the Turkish troops and were only aware of the operation from monitoring military radio traffic.

No vehicles or tanks were involved in the move across the border, although helicopter gunships were in action as well as jets and artillery.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari - himself a Kurd - described the operation as "very, very limited".

But he added that the Turks had destroyed five bridges over the Blue River tributary - part of the Greater Zaab river complex - and said he had called in the Turkish charge d'affaires in Baghdad to deliver a protest note.

Protective US umbrella

The underlying situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and on the Turkish border is so sensitive and tense that any news of Turkish military action is often blown out of proportion.

Turkish military statements are usually scant and elliptical, leaving the field open to speculation and interpretation.

Click to view a detailed map of the border region

But Ankara is well aware of Iraqi Kurdish sensibilities, and also that the United States is committed to maintaining the integrity both of Iraq as a whole, and of the federal autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enjoyed a protective US umbrella since the early 1990s.

Tensions were particularly high in October and November, when the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) carried out raids in which about 30 Turkish soldiers were killed.

Turkey massed tens of thousands of troops on the border, a build-up which is still in place.

The Iraqi Kurds feared that a major invasion was imminent, and that their own autonomy would be the real target.

But the invasion did not materialise, with Washington playing a key role in persuading the Turks to hold off in exchange for co-operation in efforts to deal with the PKK with pin-point operations.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 22 February
Prime Minister Erdogan said the PKK threatens Turkey's integrity
Washington confirmed that it had been notified in advance of the latest Turkish move, and received assurances that it would be directed solely at positions or fighters of the PKK.

They have hideouts in the rugged border mountains, from which they have conducted attacks across the border into Turkey.

The Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, also called his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani, on Thursday evening to assure him that border operations would not be directed against the Iraqi Kurds.

Mr Gul invited Mr Talabani, who is a Kurd, to pay an official visit to Ankara, an invitation which the Iraqi president accepted.

But the launching of the Turkish operation was preceded by some friction on the ground between Turkish troops and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Fighting season

There are two fixed Turkish bases inside northern Iraq, at Bamarni and Bakoufa, where a limited number of troops and tanks have been stationed since 1997 with a static monitoring and intelligence function.

PKK fighters train in northern Iraq. Photo: June 2007
The PKK wants a Kurdish homeland in south-eastern Turkey
On Wednesday, according to senior Iraqi Kurds, Turkish troops tried to move out of the bases to set up checkpoints on nearby main roads.

They were confronted by Peshmerga fighters who took up combat positions. There was a tense stand-off before the Turkish forces returned to their bases without any shots being fired.

The subsequent cross-border raid, so far at least, has fallen far short of the major incursion that had been feared before the winter weather ended the fighting season in late November.

For thousands of troops to pour across the border, as initial reports suggested, they would have to use the only major crossing, at Habur, near Zakho in the far north-west of Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurds say that did not happen. They control the southern end of the crossing, and would be the first to notice - and probably confront - a major Turkish advance.

Operations elsewhere along the rugged, snowbound border would necessarily be of a much more limited nature, until the spring thaws make the remote terrain somewhat more accessible.