US, NATO Express Concern About Russian Military in Syria

US, NATO Express Concern About Russian Military in Syria

The United States and NATO have reacted with concern to reports of increased Russian military presence in Syria.

A senior U.S. defense official told VOA that Russia has been airlifting military supplies to Syria, calling such activities “unhelpful.” 

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters he did not have confirmation of a Russian buildup, but that Russia's "intent here is unclear."  He said Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the issue by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"He reiterated our concern about these report of Russian military activities -- or buildup, if you will -- in Syria and made it very clear our view that if true and if borne out, those reports would be -- could lead to greater violence and more, even more instability in Syria," Kirby said.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz echoed those concerns in his comments to reporters on Wednesday.

"We've made clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including Russia, to provide any support to the Assad regime,” Schultz said.

In Prague, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed similar concern about reported Russian deployments of military personnel and aircraft to Syria.

"That will not contribute to solving the conflict," Stoltenberg said.  "I think it is important to now support all efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria."

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement Wednesday that "Russian military experts" are in Syria to help its military master the use of Russian weaponry and other equipment.

Russia, she said, has never made a secret of its "military-technical cooperation" with Syria and has "long provided arms and military equipment in accordance with existing bilateral contracts."

Zakharova said the Russian equipment delivered to Syria's army is designed "to counter the terrorist threat that has reached unprecedented heights in Syria and in neighboring Iraq."

Reuters reported on Wednesday that, according to three informed Lebanese sources, Russian forces have started participating in military operations supporting government troops in Syria. The news agency quoted one of the unnamed sources as saying only a "small" number of Russians are currently involved in these operations.

Meanwhile, Russia's state news agency Tass on Wednesday quoted a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Tehran as saying Iran had granted permission for Russian aircraft headed to Syria to fly over Iranian territory.

On Tuesday, Bulgaria refused permission for Russian planes to use its airspace because of doubts about their cargo. On Wednesday, it said it would allow Russian supply flights to Syria to use its airspace only if Moscow allowed the planes' cargo to be inspected at a Bulgarian airport.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told a television station owned by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah the reports of increased Russian military involvement in Syria were "concocted in Western intelligence circles."


Islamic State: Norwegian, Chinese Hostages ‘For Sale’
The Islamic State group has released ransom notices for two new hostages, one for a Chinese citizen who is reportedly a freelance contractor from China’s capital of Beijing and another for a man from Norway.

Norway’s prime minister, Erna Soldberg, has already confirmed that the Norwegian man is being held hostage in Syria. She told reporters late Wednesday that “everything indicates” that the Islamic State is responsible. Soldberg said the man — Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, a 48-year old from Oslo — was captured near the end of January.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei voiced the government's strong condemnation of acts of violence that target innocent civilians, but said that authorities were still trying to confirm the details of the alleged kidnapping.

The Chinese Embassy in Iraq has also told state media that it had no information on the alleged abduction of the man, who is said to be Fan Jinghui. Fan is said to be 50 years of age and is believe to be the first Chinese national held for ransom by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State made public its abduction by posting posters of both men at the back of the latest edition of the group’s online magazine Dabiq. Both men were dressed in yellow suits and below their pictures were the words “Norwegian Prisoner for Sale” and “Chinese Prisoner for Sale.”

A telegram number was also listed on the posters, urging the payment of a ransom for the prisoners release and transfer. The Norwegian government has said that it will not give in to pressure from terrorists and criminals and that it would not a pay a ransom.

In the posters, the group listed the names of both the men, their date of birth and home addresses. According to Chinese media reports, the address that was used for Fan appears to match that of a company that records show he owned. Fan worked in the advertising industry. A man who says he was a former classmate has released pictures of Fan, but there are still few details about his family.

China has long maintained a stance of non-interference in foreign country’s internal disputes and has applied that policy in Syria. Beijing has not joined the U.S.-led efforts against the Islamic State. It also joined Russia in vetoing a U.N. resolution referring the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court.


Social Media Helps Doctors in Europe’s 'Slow-Moving Disaster'
For the thousands of Syrian refugees attempting to escape their war-torn nation in favor of safe haven in European nations like Germany, their needs often are simple: food, water, clothing and diapers top the list.

And, increasingly, so are Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

The uses of social media and digital communications during times of humanitarian crises have perhaps never been so much on display as they are currently in Europe, which is struggling to respond to a massive influx of refugees from Syria and the Middle East.

Migrants are using apps to keep families in contact, find transportation and shelter, and even monitor border guard movements in real-time.

But social media and networking apps aren’t just proving to be of help for those struggling on their journeys. Public health and emergency responders from the Middle East through Europe are using these digital tools to help those most in need and direct resources to where they’re most needed as quickly as possible.

Dr. Eden Wells is Clinical Associate Professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, and she teaches about the uses and limits of social media and networking in the field when responding to humanitarian emergencies.

VOA spoke with her from her office in Michigan.

VOA: We’re hearing a lot about how Syrian refugees are using social media to help themselves. How do public health and emergency responders use it?

Wells: "I think we’re a step behind the younger generations technologically, but over the last few years it has become a very important tool for us in public health – particularly for epidemiologists - because leveraging and assessing information can allow us to get a better picture of needs on the ground. Being able to access Twitter feeds or Facebook postings that allow information to be provided to public health agencies [helps] to get a better idea about what the needs are."

VOA: What is it that social media does especially well? Is it communications, or something else?

Wells: "Whenever there’s a crisis – and I find that this mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people from Syria into other countries is a very slow-moving disaster – what’s important is that this type of information is live. It’s real-time, and it occurs much more quickly than our usual news feeds.

"If you look at what happened after the Japanese earthquake and the mega-disaster there, phone networks couldn’t work at all, yet Twitter feeds and text messaging and networks that could access Facebook and Skype were able to survive quite well.

"That’s how survivors could communicate quickly. We could access photo images, text communications that tell us about their needs. So it’s a very, very rapid type of assessment that can be gained from these kinds of social media activities."

VOA: Given how swiftly information can move, what are some of the best practices that health and emergency responders need to keep in mind when using social media?

Wells: "That’s a really good point. Social media has incredible strengths. It’s very powerful in terms of getting real-time situational awareness of what’s happening on the ground in any area of crisis.

"However, a limitation that we always need to be aware of is that the information could be false, or could be rumors. I wonder about this when I think about the huge crowds of migrants that showed up at the train stations in Hungary – maybe misinformation propagated via social media that there’s a train heading to a particular destination. Everybody shows up, but in fact that information is false.

"There’s also information provided through social media that may actually manipulate the public agencies, so that critical resources such as clothing, food and water may be diverted to the wrong place for political or other reasons. And safety is a big issue as well.

"If we have people out in the field tweeting, texting, taking pictures and uploading them, they may not be looking out for their own safety and may be putting themselves in danger.

"What I worry about a lot is that when you have multiple people feeding in information to various sites – whether it’s Facebook or a crowd-sourcing application – you can get a lot of disorganized information. So it really requires thoughtfulness when using these tools."

VOA: Are there roles for the public in general, or in this case the Syrian refugees in particular, to play in social media, or should they just leave it to the emergency responders?

Wells: "I think that much of the information that comes from the field from those actually involved can be incredibly valuable, as long as the public health agencies or others are using the information carefully.

"That’s where you get real-time imaging. For example, the powerful image of the young boy who drowned went around the world within minutes and mobilized many governments to respond. For those involved on the ground, we can’t expect them to follow particular rules.

"I think they’re going to do what they can to help themselves and share information with their loved ones. What responders can do at the governmental level is to coordinate the information from them. But I heartily encourage the use of this kind of information and activity."

VOA: What are some of the tools or techniques, would you imagine, that public health and emergency responders in Europe are using right now?

Wells: "I can’t speak to the many, many different countries and agencies involved, but what would be really interesting is to get the governmental information out there into the social media sphere.

"For example, actively participating in the Facebook and Twitter feeds that the refugees are using to provide solid, reliable information and develop a reputation within that social media landscape – that’s a big help.

"If you just observe and don’t participate, then I think the information won’t get to where it needs to go, which is to those people that are attempting these very difficult travels across national borders."

VOA: In general, how well prepared are emergency aid organizations in using social media and apps; and if they’re not where they should be, what do they need?

Wells: "Well, social media is something I only began to teach about a few years ago, and it’s fairly new to many in graduate public health schools. But it’s becoming a very active science at this point.

"I find that as younger graduate students move into the field and governmental agencies, they’re taking with them these technical skills that they’re so familiar with. I know that now, with the public health agencies I work with in the U.S., it’s quite common for us to use this Twitter, Facebook, or other social media accounts to access information as quickly as we can."

Doug Bernard
Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.


Navigation, 3-D Printing in Sensing Technology Lead to New Apps
3-D printing, high-speed navigation and a magic mirror are some of the technologies that have come from new computer chips with advanced spatial sensing. Technology startups that have partnered with chip maker Intel showed off their products recently in San Francisco.

In one demonstration, an imaging application scanned a toy bear to create a character for the popular game Minecraft. The three-dimensional image took shape on the computer screen, in one of many new apps that lets user customize their games with a camera with an Intel chip called RealSense.

“It looks at things in the visual spectrum as well as in the infrared spectrum,” said Mark Day, chief executive of the company voidALPHA, which developed the app Minescan.

“It's bouncing infrared [light] off, which is what gives things the volume. You could scan your face. You can scan toys, just pretty much any object,” said Day.

Immersive art

Spatial modeling can be used to create 3-D images of people, in this case, using a laser to etch a portrait inside a block of glass. Nearby, a woman raises a tablet computer slowly and moves it above and around a man's head to gather the data for the portrait. The man's image takes shape in three dimensions on the screen, and a laser engraver creates the artwork.

Viktor Erukhimov of the company Itseez3D, with offices in Russia and California, said his tablet-based software lets users put themselves into games.

“I have a video of myself doing some soccer moves I would never be able to do myself,” he said.

Another app lets musicians play virtual instruments by moving their arms through the air. A man waves and twists his hands to create a tune on a synthesizer, as a mechanical stringed instrument adds to the music.

Magic mirror

Yet another device, called a Memory Mirror, helps customers decide what clothes to buy as they pose in front of a smart display.

Nadav Neufeld of the company MemoMi says it can sense the person's position and shape, “and change the color of whatever you're wearing, without you needing to actually change the color itself.”

The Memory Mirror is now being used in several San Francisco branches of a department store.

Intel's Natalie Cheung says a RealSense camera helps drones maneuver through obstacles while flying at high speed.

“It can detect objects at a certain distance and “talk” to the autopilot on the drone,” Cheung explains, “and say, hey, you need to move away. The object is getting closer.”

The same system is helping robots make deliveries to hotel rooms, and several autonomous robots from a company called Savioke are being used at hotels in San Francisco.

Developers at this forum are working on other apps and high-tech products, ranging from the whimsical – a small flying camera – to more practical scanners that workers wear on their gloves to track factory inventory, that are now or may soon be on the market.


Apple Unveils iPad Pro, Largest Tablet Ever
Apple on Wednesday unveiled its largest-ever tablet computer, the iPad Pro, complete with a new "smart" keyboard and an Apple "Pencil" stylus device aimed at business customers.

Chief Executive Tim Cook showed off the new iPad at the company's San Francisco media event, saying it is "the biggest news in iPad since the iPad."

The new iPad Pro, available for purchase in November and priced starting at $799, boosts CPU performance faster than 80 percent of the portable PCs shipped in the last year, said Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller.

The company partnered with Cisco Systems and IBM to help power the iPad Pro, which he said has a 10-hour battery life and a 32.7 centimeter (12.9-inch) display - compared to 24.6 centimeters (9.7 inches) for the current full-size iPad.

While touch is still the primary method of input for the iPad, its screen was adapted for use with the new Apple "Pencil," a stylus tool with highly responsive sensors built into its tip.

Representatives of Apple's former rival, Microsoft, also took the stage to present the iPad Pro's productivity potential using Microsoft Office and other apps. A software update will enable iPads to run two apps side by side, something previously limited to Samsung and Windows tablets.

Other companies showed off using the iPad Pro and the Apple Watch for creativity tasks and health care - including an app for doctors to show patients what's happening with 3-D graphics.

Dr. Cameron Powell from AirStrip called the Apple Watch a "game-changer for health care." She demonstrated how real-time feeds of heart rates and other measurements can be transmitted from a pregnant mother - and her child - remotely to a doctor.

Cook also talked up the Apple Watch, saying customer satisfaction for the new product is 97 percent. He said a software update for the device - available as a free download starting next Wednesday - has enabled outside developers to write more sophisticated apps.

Apple is working with French luxury goods maker Hermes on a new watch collection, and Facebook Messenger as well as iTranslate are coming to the device, he said.

The company also unveiled the latest generation of iPhones, the 6S and 6S Plus, keeping the same overall dimensions of the last version, as well as a new, more powerful Apple TV.
US, NATO Express Concern About Russian Military in Syria US, NATO Express Concern About Russian Military in Syria Reviewed by Ajit Kumar on 6:19 PM Rating: 5

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