French ex-spy accused of plot to assassinate Congolese politician found dead in Alps

Lucinges FranceA former paramilitary officer in the French intelligence service, who was under investigation for allegedly plotting to kill a senior Congolese opposition figure, has been shot dead near a village in the French Alps. Daniel Forestier, 57, served for nearly 15 years in a paramilitary unit of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) —France’s equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. After his retirement from the DGSE, he moved with this wife and two children to the alpine village of Lucinges, near Geneva, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France. He reportedly operated a tobacconist shop, served in the village council, and wrote spy novels in his spare time.

Last September, however, a judge placed Forestier under a pre-trial investigation for allegedly participating in a plot to kill General Ferdinand Mbahou. From 1992 to 1997 Mbahou (a.k.a. Mbaou) served as Director of Presidential Security in the Republic of the Congo. In 1997, Mbahou fled the country along with his employer, President Pascal Lissouba, who was ousted in a brutal civil war by militias loyal to Colonel Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congolese Labor Party. From his new home in Val d’Oise, just outside of Paris, Mbahou has continued to criticize Colonel Sassou Nguesso, who is the current president of the Republic of the Congo. Forestier and another former DGSE officer, Bruno Susini, were accused of having hatched a plan to kill Mbahou. Their indictment mentioned “participation in a criminal organization” and “possession of explosives”. Forestier reportedly told the magistrate that he was a member of a group that planned to assassinate Mbahou, but that he abandoned the effort after conducting reconnaissance and realizing that the plan was “impractical”.

Forestier’s body was discovered on Wednesday “in a pool of blood” in a parking lot in Haute-Savoie, an alpine resort area on the shores of Lake Geneva. According to a police report, he had been shot five times in the chest and head in what public prosecutor Philippe Toccanier described as “a professional job”. He added that Forestier’s killing was “almost undoubtedly […] a settling of scores”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 March 2019 | Permalink

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Dissident group ‘approached the FBI’ after raid on North Korean embassy in Madrid

North Korea embassy SpainMembers of a self-styled dissident group that raided North Korea’s embassy in Madrid last month reportedly approached the authorities in the United States, offering to share material taken from the embassy. The attack took place in the afternoon of February 22 in a quiet neighborhood in northern Madrid, where the North Korean embassy is located. Ten assailants, all Southeast Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff, as well as three North Korean architects who were visiting the facility at the time. The assailants later abandoned the building in two embassy vehicles that were later found abandoned.

Initial reports alleging that Washington was involved in the raid were later found to be inaccurate, as an obscure North Korean dissident group, calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense —also known as Free Joseon— claimed responsibility for the attack. Cheollima Civil Defense is North Korea’s first known active resistance group in living memory, and has called for the overthrow of the Kim dynasty. But little is known about its members.

On Tuesday, however, Judge José de la Mata, of the Spanish High Court, told reporters that three members of the group had been identified by Spanish authorities. He named them as: Adrian Hong Chang, a Mexican national who is a resident of the United States; Sam Ryu, an American citizen; and Woo Ran Lee, a South Korean. Judge de la Mata said that all ten members of the group had managed to leave Spain in the hours following the attack on the North Korean embassy. Interestingly, however, Chang, who left Europe through Portugal, appeared in New York on February 27 and approached the local field office of the FBI. He allegedly met with FBI agents and described the raid on the North Korean embassy. He then offered to give the FBI some of the material that Cheollima Civil Defense stole from the embassy, including a mobile phone, USBs, laptops, as well as several hard drives.

It is not known whether the FBI accepted Chang’s offer. But, according to Judge de la Mata, Chang “handed over audiovisual material” to the FBI. When asked about Judge de la Mata’s statement, the FBI said it does not comment on investigations that are in progress. The US Department of State said that the American government “had nothing to do” with the attack on the North Korean embassy in February.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 March 2019 | Permalink

Moscow confirms arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela

Russian planes CaracasRussian media reports have confirmed that an airplane carrying 100 Russian troops arrived in Caracas on Saturday, causing tensions to rise between Washington and Moscow over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. The arrival of the Russian troops in the Venezuelan capital was first reported on Saturday morning by Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca, who said on Twitter that two Russian military airplanes had landed in Caracas. The reporter said that an Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to the Russian Air Force could be seen on the tarmac of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in the Venezuelan capital. Another, smaller aircraft, also bearing the Russian flag on its fuselage, landed shortly afterwards, said Mayorca.

Within hours, several Venezuelan media reports appeared to confirm Mayorca’s claims, some even posting photographs of the two Russian planes surrounded by what appeared to be uniformed Russian soldiers. The BBC reported that the Russian cargo plane had delivered 100 Russian troops and 35 tons of military equipment. The force was led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, commander of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, according to the BBC. Later on Saturday, the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik confirmed that Russian troops had arrived in Caracas. Citing anonymous “diplomatic sources”, Sputnik said the Russian troops had been sent to Caracas in order “to fulfil technical military contracts” and “to take part in consultations […] on defense industry cooperation” with Venezuelan officials. It added that there was “nothing mysterious” about the visit and that it was “related to [military] contracts that had been signed by the two countries years ago”.

Russia has supported Venezuela militarily, economically and diplomatically ever since 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president. The recent political crisis in the Latin American country, which has prompted a direct diplomatic intervention by Washington, has brought Caracas and Moscow closer together, as Russia has strongly opposed efforts by the United States to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, Russia sent two Tu-160 long-range bomber aircraft to take part in a military exercise organized by the Venezuelan government.

On Monday, Washington said that the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pompeo told his Russian counterpart that Moscow should “cease its unconstructive behavior” and warned him that the United States would “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbated tensions” in Venezuela. Late on Monday, Sputnik quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying that that the “visit of Russian military personnel to Venezuela [was] in no way connected to the statements of the United States on potential intervention in Venezuela”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2019 | Permalink

East German Stasi spies questioned for evidence on Lockerbie bombing

Lockerbie air disasterFive former officers of East Germany’s State Security Service, known commonly as the Stasi, have been questioned in Berlin over the Lockerbie air disaster at the request of British prosecutors. A total of 270 people died on December 21, 1988, when Pan Am flight 103, flying from Frankfurt to Detroit, exploded in mid-air over the Scottish village of Lockerbie. In 2001, a British court sitting in the Netherlands ruled that the bombing was carried out by Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines. Al-Megrahi was also believed to have been an officer of Intelligence of the Jamahiriya —Libya’s main intelligence service. He claimed he was innocent of the crime until his death in 2012 from cancer.

But Scotland’s independent public prosecution agency, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, has always claimed that several other Libyan intelligence operatives helped Megrahi bring down Pan Am flight 103. Last December, the Crown Office said that it was continuing to pursue a criminal inquiry into several individuals —other than Megrahi— who were “involved in the conspiracy” to bomb Pan Am flight 103. As part of the inquiry, Crown Office prosecutors have interviewed potential suspects and witnesses, including Abdullah Senussi, former head of Libyan intelligence.

On Thursday, the German news agency DPA said that five former officers of the East German Stasi —all of them in their 70s and 80s— had been interviewed in connection to the Lockerbie bombing. The news agency said that the interviews had been conducted by German intelligence officers at the request of Crown Office prosecutors in Britain. Later on Thursday, the Berlin office of the German state prosecutor confirmed that the unnamed five individuals had been interviewed “as witnesses, not as suspects” throughout the past nine months. It gave no further information, saying that “it would be inappropriate to comment on a developing criminal investigation”.

All five former Stasi officers are believed to have provided evidence at the trial in the Netherlands that resulted in Megrahi’s conviction. Among other things, they told the court that the Libyans had contracted a Swiss businessman who manufactured the timer that detonated the Lockerbie bomb. Moreover, the 2014 documentary My Brother’s Bomber, directed by the American filmmaker Ken Dornstein, whose brother died in the Lockerbie bombing, claimed that the Stasi had closely monitored the activities of Libyan intelligence in West Germany in the years leading up to the downing of Pan Am flight 103. Some believe that the Stasi had evidence of a conspiracy by several Libyan intelligence officers to carry out the bombing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 March 2019 | Permalink

Putin’s ex-adviser found dead in Washington had broken neck, say medical examiners

Mikhail LesinA former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died allegedly by falling while intoxicated in a luxury hotel room in Washington, may in fact have been strangled to death, according to a newly released medical examination. The body of Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a well-known Russian media mogul, was found in the luxury Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015. He became famous in Russia soon after the collapse of the communist system, when he founded Video International, an advertising and public-relations agency that was hired by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to run his reelection campaign in 1995.

Yeltsin’s electoral success was partly attributed to the well-tailored media message projected by Lesin’s company. The media magnate was rewarded by Yeltsin, who offered him influential government posts, including that of director of Russia’s state-owned news agency Novosti. Meanwhile, Lesin became a media personality and frequently gave interviews espousing a free-enterprise model for the Russian media industry. But soon after Vladimir Putin’s ascendance to the presidency, Lesin saw the writing on the wall and began advocating for increased government regulation of media and telecommunications conglomerates. In 1999, Putin made him Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications, a post he held for nearly six years, until 2004. In 2006, Lesin was awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland, one of the most prestigious civilian decorations in Russia.

But in late 2009, Putin abruptly fired Lesin from his post in the Kremlin’s Media Advisory Commission, allegedly because the media mogul had developed close contacts with Russian organized crime. Lesin’s ties with Putin’s inner circle were further strained in 2014, when he resigned from his position as head of Gazprom Media, after he clashed with pro-Putin executives on the board. When Lesin’s body was found in his hotel room by a member of the hotel staff, some suggested that he may have been killed by the Kremlin. Read more of this post

Heavily armed gang attacks nuclear fuel convoy in Brazil

Angra Nuclear Power PlantA convoy of trucks carrying nuclear fuel to one of Brazil’s nuclear plants was attacked by a heavily armed gang on Tuesday, according to police reports. The convoy was carrying uranium fuel from Resende, an industrial city in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro in southeastern Brazil. Its destination was the Angra Nuclear Power Plant in the coastal city of Angra dos Reis, which is located 100 miles south of Resende. Angra is Brazil’s sole nuclear power plant. It consists of two pressurized water reactors, Angra I and Angra II. It is owned by Eletrobras, Brazil’s state-owned power utility firm, which is also the world’s tenth largest electric utilities company.

According to Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, the nuclear fuel convoy came under heavy attack by gunmen as it reached the outskirts of Angra dos Reis, just a few miles north of the power plant. The Brazilian Federal Highway Police said in a statement that its vehicles that were escorting the nuclear fuel convoy were shot at and returned fire. It added that the attackers fled the scene without anyone getting hurt, and that no arrests were made. The convoy then reached the power plant without further incident 20 minutes following the shootout. The police statement was followed by a public announcement by Eletronuclear, Eletrobras’ nuclear utility arm. The announcement argued that national security was not compromised by the attack, as the fuel carried by the trucks consisted of “uranium in its natural state”. It would therefore have to be weaponized with the use of advanced mechanical instruments before it could be truly harmful.

Brazilian Federal Highway Police officials told reporters that they did not believe that the gunmen had planned to attack the nuclear fuel convoy. They claimed that the convoy happened to be passing from the scene of the attack as a shootout was taking place between members of rival drug gangs, which are known to control the outskirts of Angra dos Reis. Some of the gang members began shooting at the police vehicles escorting the convoy, apparently without realizing that the trucks they were shooting at were carrying nuclear fuel.

The incident underscores the steady rise and increasing aggressiveness of organized criminal gangs in Brazil, which, according to some observers, are beginning to resemble Mexico’s drug cartels. Angra dos Reis’ Mayor Fernando Jordão told O Globo that the residents of his city felt unprotected by the federal government. “Regional security must be improved”, he added, especially since “there are nuclear plants here. This region is very sensitive”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 March 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Who was behind the raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid?

North Korea SpainAn obscure North Korean dissident group was most likely behind a violent raid on North Korea’s embassy in Madrid on February 22, which some reports have pinned on Western spy agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency. The group, known as the Cheollima Civil Defense, is believed to be the first North Korean resistance organization to declare war on the government of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

THE ATTACK

The attack took place at 3:00 in the afternoon local time in Aravaca, a leafy residential district of northern Madrid, where the embassy of North Korea is located. Ten assailants, all Southeast Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff, as well as three North Korean architects who were visiting the facility at the time. But one staff member hid at the embassy. She eventually managed to escape from a second-floor window and reach an adjacent building that houses a nursing home. Nursing home staff called the police, who arrived at the scene but had no jurisdiction to enter the embassy grounds, since the premises are technically North Korean soil. When police officers rang the embassy’s doorbell, an Asian-looking man appeared at the door and Q Quote 1said in English that all was fine inside the embassy. But a few minutes later, two luxury cars belonging to the North Korean embassy sped away from the building with the ten assailants inside, including the man who had earlier appeared at the front door.

Once they entered the embassy, Spanish police found eight men and women tied up, with bags over their heads. Several had been severely beaten and at least two had to be hospitalized. The victims told police that the assailants were all Korean, spoke Korean fluently, and had kept them hostage for nearly four hours. But they refused to file formal police complaints. The two diplomatic cars were later found abandoned at a nearby street. No money was taken by the assailants, nor did they seem interested in valuables of any kind. But they reportedly took with them an unknown number of computer hard drives and cell phones belonging to the embassy staff. They also stole an unknown quantity of diplomatic documents, according to reports.

POSSIBLE FOREIGN CULPRITS

Within a few hours, Spanish police had reportedly ruled out the possibility that the assailants were common thieves, arguing that the attack had been meticulously planned and executed. Also, common thieves would have looked for valuables and would not have stayed inside the embassy for four hours. Within a week, several Spanish newspapers, including the highly respected Madrid daily El País and the Barcelona-based El Periodico, pinned the raid on Western intelligence services. They cited unnamed police sources who claimed that at least two of the assailants had been identified and found to have links with the CIA. The reports also cited claims by embassy employees that the attackers interrogated them extensively about Soh Yun-sok, North Korea’s former ambassador to Madrid. Soh became Pyongyang’s chief nuclear negotiator after he was expelled by the Spanish government in 2017 in protest against North Korea’s nuclear missile tests. Read more of this post