News Briefs – February 21, 2020

Government troops, rebels exchange fire in eastern Ukraine

Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists blamed each other for an outbreak of fighting in the country’s rebel-held east on Feb. 18.
Ukraine’s military said in a statement that the separatists attempted to advance into the Ukraine-controlled territory but were repelled.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy denounced the attack as a “cynical provocation.”
Separatist authorities in the Luhansk region, however, blamed Ukraine for starting the fighting. They claimed the fighting erupted when a group of Ukrainian soldiers tried to make an incursion into rebel-held territory near the village of Holubovske, but got into a minefield.
The chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, Colonel-General Ruslan Khomchak, said one Ukrainian soldier was killed and another five were wounded in combat. He said four separatists were killed and six others were wounded.
The separatists said two Ukrainian troops were killed and three others were wounded and the Ukrainian forces launched an artillery barrage to cover their evacuation.
They said a civilian resident in Holubovske was wounded by the Ukrainian shelling that also damaged civilian infrastructure in the villages of Kirovsk and Donetskiy.
The exchange of gunfire marks the latest spike in hostilities in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed over 14,000 people since 2014.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped reduce the scope of fighting, but sporadic clashes have continued and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.
During a meeting in Paris in December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany made a deal to exchange prisoners and pledged to ensure a lasting cease-fire in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists. They made no progress, however, on key contentious issues — a timeline for local elections in eastern Ukraine and when Ukraine can get back control of its borders in the rebel-held region.
Zelenskiy said on Facebook that the Feb. 18 outbreak of hostilities was an attempt to derail efforts to end the conflict and said he would call a meeting of his Security Council to discuss the situation.
“Our course for ending the war and our adherence to international agreements remain unchanged, just as our determination to repel any acts of aggression against Ukraine,” he said. AP

Israeli military to create command to combat Iran threats

Israel’s military will set up a special branch in its general staff dedicated to threats from Iran, it said Feb. 18.
The military said it will appoint a major general to head the command, which is part of a broader restructuring in the general staff.
A statement by the military offered few details about the new command, saying the nature of the new branch’s work was “yet to be determined.” But the move highlights the importance Israel places on the threats it views coming from Iran.
Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In Gaza, it supplies Islamic Jihad with cash, weapons and training, and also supports Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the coastal territory. Israel also accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons — a charge Iran denies.
Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has warned against any permanent Iranian presence on the frontier. But its battle against Iran has increasingly come out of the shadows, with Iranian and Israeli forces coming into direct confrontation.
In November, the Israeli military said fighter jets hit multiple targets belonging to Iran’s elite Quds force, including surface-to-air missiles, weapons warehouses and military bases.
Israel has also struck a number of Iranian military targets in Syria, including munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp, in response to an Iranian missile attack a day earlier. AP

Greece, U.S. hold live-fire drill after major base deal

At the foot of Mount Olympus, army aviation forces from Greece and the United States are taking part in a live-fire exercise with attack helicopters, marking deepening defense ties between the two countries.
Greece is ramping up military cooperation — and procurements — from allies France and the U.S., wary of worsening relations with neighbor Turkey over disputed sea and air space boundaries and drilling rights in the East Mediterranean.
The Feb. 19 training exercise, watched by the Greek army chief and the U.S. ambassador to Greece, was held three weeks after the two countries finalized a landmark defense agreement giving American forces expanded access to Greek military bases.
After a financial crisis that lasted nearly a decade, the Greek military is upgrading its F-16 fighter fleet and modernising its navy, while seeking stronger military ties with traditional allies as well as Turkey’s regional rivals, including Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
“Greece is already involved in enhancing and upgrading its defence capability with critical procurement decisions,” Panagiotis Tsakonas, a professor of international relations and security studies at the University of Athens, told The Associated Press.
“The rule is to make the best use of limited resources — to get the most bang for our buck, and that is something that we are continuing to do,” he said.
The revised Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement between Greece and the U.S. was signed in October by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Athens and ratified last month. It provides for increased joint U.S.-Greece and NATO activities at Greek military bases and facilities in Larissa, Stefanovikio, and Alexandroupolis, in central and northern Greece, as well as infrastructure and other improvements at the Souda Bay U.S. naval base on the island of Crete.
“The U.S.-Greece relationship is stronger than it has ever been,” U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said. “Our defense ties and our defense cooperation is an essential component of that.” AP

Boeing finds a new issue with Max, debris in fuel tanks

Boeing said Feb. 19 that it found debris contaminating the fuel tanks of some 737 Max jets that it built in the past year but was unable to deliver to airline customers.
A Boeing official said the debris was discovered in “several” planes but did not give a precise number. Boeing built about 400 undelivered Max jets before it temporarily halted production last month.
The fuel tank debris was discovered during maintenance on parked planes, and Boeing said it immediately made corrections in its production system to prevent a recurrence. Those steps include more inspections before fuel tanks are sealed.
A Boeing spokesman said that the issue would not change the company’s belief that the Federal Aviation Administration will certify the plane to fly again this summer.
An FAA spokesman said the agency knows that Boeing is conducting a voluntary inspection of undelivered Max planes.
The FAA “increased its surveillance based on initial inspection reports and will take further action based on the findings,” said spokesman Lynn Lunsford.
Metal shavings, tools and other objects left in planes during assembly can raise the risk of electrical short-circuiting and fires.
Mark Jenks, Boeing’s general manager of the 737 program, said in a memo to employees who work on the 737, “During these challenging times, our customers and the flying public are counting on us to do our best work each and every day.”
Jenks called the debris “absolutely unacceptable. One escape is one too many.”
The debris issue was first reported by aviation news site
Max jets were grounded around the world last March after two crashes killed 346 people. Boeing is conducting test flights to assess updates to a flight-control system that activated before the crashes on faulty signals from sensors outside the plane, pushing the noses of the aircraft down and triggering spirals that pilots were unable to stop.
While investigators examining the Max accidents have not pointed to production problems at the assembly plant near Seattle, Boeing has faced concerns about debris left in other finished planes including the 787 Dreamliner, which is built in South Carolina. AP

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