Venezuelan government quells armed uprising by National Guard troops in Caracas

Bolivarian National GuardThe government of Venezuela said on Tuesday that it had quelled an armed uprising by nearly 30 members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) in Caracas, which sparked an all-night riot in the Venezuelan capital. On Tuesday government officials announced the arrest of 27 members of the GNB who allegedly revolted against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Several videos were posted in pro-opposition social media accounts the night before. They showed young men in military uniforms brandishing weapons and calling on all Venezuelans to rise up against the country’s government. In one video posted on Twitter, a man wearing a GNB uniform said that he and his comrades in arms were speaking out “on behalf of the people of Venezuela”. He then urged viewers to “take to the streets” and bring down the government.

Early on Tuesday, officials in the Venezuelan Ministry of People’s Defense said that the officers had raided a GNB command post in Petare, a neighborhood in northwestern Caracas. They allegedly immobilized the command post guards and stole several weapons. The rebels then made their way to Cotiza, a neighborhood that is adjacent to Petare, and is considered a stronghold of anti-government sentiment. Late on Monday a number of videos emerged on social media that showed young men clashing with riot police in Cotiza. Police forces were seen using tear gas and noise grenades, while some of the rioters built makeshift barricades using cars, dumpsters and other large objects. However, no gunshots were heard coming from either side.

By noon on Tuesday the riot had ended and it appeared that all GNB rebels had been neutralized or gone into hiding. Government sources said that all 27 rebels had been arrested and were alive, but shared no information about the precise circumstances of their capture. It is not known whether they voluntarily surrendered to the police or whether they were somehow overpowered. Defense Ministry officials said that all stolen weapons had been retrieved and described the rebels as people representing “the shadowy interests of the far right”. All 27 GNB rebels were being questioned on Tuesday and Venezuelan officials said that they would be subjected to “the full force of the law”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 January 2019 | Permalink

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Spanish judge broadens probe into 20-year illegal wiretap network

José Manuel VillarejoA judge in Spain has widened an investigation into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years, in return for payments by wealthy clients. At the center of the case is José Manuel Villarejo, a 67-year-old former police chief, who was arrested in November of 2017 for carrying out illegal wiretaps and remains in pre-trial custody. State prosecutors accuse Villarejo of running an illicit information-collection enterprise that violated the privacy of hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. The latter were targeted by corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. Many of Villarejo’s targets were eventually blackmailed by the recipients of information collected by the former police chief and his network.

The court heard this week that the accused maintained an extensive network of informants with whom he had worked during his time in the police force. These informants worked for telecommunications service providers, the banking sector, and even at Agencia Tributaria, Spain’s tax revenue service. They are accused of providing Villarejo’s network with information that helped him zero in on his targets, such as confidential tax returns, subscriber records of personal telephone calls, bank account numbers, and asset ownership lists. It is believed that several Spanish politicians were among Villarejo’s clients, as was the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, one of Spain’s largest banks.

On Wednesday, the court heard from five active police officers and an employee of the Agencia Tributaria, who testified about having worked for Villarejo’s network. The six men testified about so-called Operation KITCHEN, which targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular —known as PP, or the People’s Party. The purpose of Operation KITCHEN was to wiretap Bárcenas’ communications without acquiring a court warrant, said the witnesses. In 2018 Bárcenas was jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case, the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, which brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of last year. The trial continues.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 January 2019 | Permalink

US sent troops to OPEC member Gabon just days before military coup

Libreville, GabonThe United States deployed troops to the Central African nation of Gabon just days before a group of military officers staged tried to take over power in the oil-rich nation on Monday. Situated on the Atlantic coastline of Central Africa, Gabon is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, despite producing of 176,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of Africa’s most significant oil producers, over a third of its 2 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line. The country has been ruled by the Bongo family for over a century with its current President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, having led the country since his father’s death a decade ago. In October of last year, however, Bongo went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering a stroke, and has yet to return. In a televised message aired on New Year’s Day, Bongo told the citizens of Gabon that he was recovering and would soon be returning to his duties.

But in the early hours of Monday gun shots were reported in the vicinity of the studios of Radio Télévision Gabonaise (RTG), the country’s state-owned national broadcaster in the capital city, Libreville. A few hours later, regular broadcasting was suspended. A message was transmitted on the national radio station frequency by troops claiming to be members of a group calling itself the Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon. Its leader, a man identifying himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, said that the armed forces had “doubts” about President Bongo’s “ability to perform the responsibilities of his office”. He also announced the formation of a “Council of National Restoration” that would “ensure the smooth operation of the state and guarantee a transition to democracy”. However, a few hours later a government spokesman told international media that the coup had been defeated and that Lieutenant Obiang was under arrest. Two of his co-conspirators had been killed, said the spokesman.

Interestingly, the US deployed 80 American soldiers to Gabon on January 2, less than a week before the coup unfolded. In a letter sent to Congress on January 4, US President Donald Trump said that the troops would be stationed in Libreville and would carry with them “appropriate combat equipment”. Their purpose, said President Trump, would be to provide security protection for US “citizens, personnel and diplomatic facilities” in Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Security analysts fear that the pending announcement of the delayed election results in the DRC may spark widespread riots in the country of 81 million people. On Monday, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) told reporters that there was “no change in the status of our forces in Gabon” and that they would not be involved in the domestic political situation. The US troops were “not currently tasked with securing [US] diplomatic assets [in Gabon]”, added the AFRICOM spokesman. However, AFRICOM said that additional US troops may deploy to Gabon, the DRC or the Republic of the Congo, should the need arise.

It is not known whether the coup plotters were aware of the presence of the 80 US troops in Libreville when they tried to take over power on Monday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2019 | Permalink

Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

China seeks clarification over alleged spy equipment ordered by US embassies

US embassy Berlin GermanyThe Chinese government says it is seeking explanations from Washington after a leaked procurement database showed that American embassies purchased data forensics software and various tactical spy equipment. The purported database was published on December 21 by the international anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, who is accused by some in the United States of having violated its espionage laws. WikiLeaks has dubbed the database the “US Embassy Shopping List” and says that it contains over 16,000 procurement requests from officials at American embassies located all over the world.

Most procurement requests included in the WikiLeaks database appear to be for commonplace items or services, such as passenger transportation, heating oil, outdoor freezers, or garage gates maintenance and repair. But there are some requests for so-called “tactical spy equipment”, such as those ordered by the US embassies in Colombia and El Salvador. These appear to be for miniature surveillance cameras hidden into everyday objects, such as buttons, baseball caps, watches and ties. Nearly 100 such items were requested for procurement by the US embassy in San Salvador. Several embassies ordered hardware and software for forensic examination of mobile phones. For example, the US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, ordered a “Cell Phone Analyzer”, which allows users to access data from cell phones while bypassing security measures such as passwords. Similar devices were ordered by the US embassies in Berlin (pictured), and Kiev, capital of Ukraine, where fears were expressed on Monday about a possible military action by Russian troops during the holidays.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was seeking “clarifications” from Washington about the documents made public by WikiLeaks. Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that the US owed “the rest of the world an explanation […] for what has recently been revealed by WikiLeaks”. Chunying also spoke about prior WikiLeaks revelations, including the so-called “PRISM-gate” in 2013, which revealed extensive intelligence-collection activities by the US on numerous countries, including some if its allies, such as Germany and France. She went on to ask, “why do American embassies buy so much secret surveillance equipment?”. Authorities in Washington had made no comment on the WikiLeaks revelation as of Tuesday morning.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 December 2018 | Permalink

Cyber spies accessed thousands of European Union diplomatic cables

European Commission buildingA group of hackers, allegedly working for the Chinese military, accessed thousands of classified diplomatic cables from the European Union during a protracted cyber-espionage operation, a report has revealed. Over 100 organizations are believed to have been targeted in the multi-year cyber-espionage campaign, including the United Nations, international labor groups, as well as government ministries from dozens of countries. The operation was revealed on Tuesday by Area 1, a cyber-security company founded by former officials of the United States National Security Agency, and reported by The New York Times.

The compromised cables come primarily from the European Union’s COREU communication network, a Telex-based network that uses teleprinters to exchange text-based messages. The European Union uses the COREU network to transmit information that is classified “limited” or “restricted” between officials representing the executive governments of the European Union’s member states, members of the European Commission, foreign-ministry officials, and other approved parties. Top-secret information (“tres secret” in European Union parlance) is typically not shared on the COREU network. Consequently, the hacked cables contain mostly low-level information. That does not mean, however, that their access by at least one adversary power does not represent a serious security breach. Area 1 said that its forensic examination of the method used by the hackers reveals a set of cyber-espionage techniques that are closely associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These clues, in association with the PLA’s long history of attacking Western diplomatic targets, point to Beijing as a very likely culprit behind the attacks, according to Area 1.

The American cyber-security firm said it was able to access the compromised European Union cables and made over 1,100 of them available to The New York Times. The paper reported on Tuesday that the cables reflect increasing tension between Brussels and Washington, as European Union diplomats attempt to get a handle on the unpredictability of United States President Donald Trump. A series of diplomatic cables discusses the whether the European Union should bypass the White House and work directly with the Republican-controlled US Congress, which is viewed as more reliable and responsible. Another set of diplomatic exchanges describes the frustration of the Beijing’s leadership with Trump, which Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have described to European Union officials as “a bully [engaged in a] no-rules freestyle boxing match”.

The Times said that it notified the European Union of the breach of its diplomatic cables and was told that officials were “aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and [were] actively investigating the issue”. The paper also contacted the White House National Security Council but did not get a response.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 December 2018 | Permalink

Wave of bomb threats prompts hundreds of evacuations in four countries

Toronto subway evacuationAn unprecedented “flood of bomb threats” prompted hundreds of evacuations and closures of private buildings, transport hubs and offices in four countries on Thursday, causing confusion and in some cases panic. The threats —which numbered in the hundreds— were issued throughout the day Thursday against businesses, schools, hospitals and media companies in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is the first time in history that such a large wave of bomb threats was issued against so many targets internationally.

Police agencies in the United States and Canada said that most of the threats were emailed, but some were phoned in by unknown individuals. They warned that devices containing explosive compounds such as tetryl or trinitrotoluene would be detonated unless funds were deposited into an international account using the virtual currency bitcoin. The messages also warned that the alleged devices would be detonated if “any police activity or unusual behavior” were detected. A deadline of one business day was given to deposit the funds. Throughout the day, police agencies across three continents issued notices cautioning people to remain aware of their surroundings and report suspicious messages or behavior. It was eventually determined that virtually all bomb threats were not credible.

However, it was the sheer number and geographical extent of the threats that shocked law enforcement agencies across four countries. In the United States, threats were reported in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Oklahoma City, where over dozens of specific addresses were targeted. Nearly 30 schools were placed on lockout in the state of Colorado, while numerous buildings were evacuated in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Cincinnati and Seattle. Smaller cities were also affected, including South Bend, Indiana, Grand Rapids, Iowa, Charlotte, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia, and Park City, Utah. In Canada dozens of bomb threats were issued in Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Toronto, where five of the city’s subway stations were shut down for several hours. Media reports late on Thursday said it was unclear how many —if any— of those targeted paid the bitcoin ransoms demanded by the hoaxers.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 December 2018 | Permalink