Tag Archives: Chuck Hagel

NATO ships arrive in Lithuania amid rising tensions over Ukraine

A group of NATO ships has arrived in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda to “ensure regional security,” the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense has said. Russia has already voiced its concern over the “unprecedented” buildup of NATO forces in the region.

The group is composed of 4 minesweeping ships from Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Estonia as well as one supply vessel. The ships will take part in intensive military drills, stopping off at various ports in the region. They will also participate in operation “Open Sprit” deactivating underwater explosives.

The Lithuanian Minister of Defense Juozas Olekas said in a statement the drills will “ensure our national and regional security and collective defense.”

The contingent of ships is not the only NATO force to have been deployed in the region recently. Last week, the United States announced the deployment of 600 soldiers who will participate in military drills in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to show solidarity with NATO members that border Russia.

In addition, Britain and France have sent 8 fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania to step up aerial patrol in the region. As well as the increased aerial presence, NATO has also deployed ships in the Black Sea, Baltic Sea and East Mediterranean.

Russia views this recent escalation in NATO forces so close to its border as a provocation and counter-productive in the struggle to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine. On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu appealed to his American counterpart, Chuck Hagel, to cool down the rhetoric over Ukraine and work together to defuse the situation.

He denied accusations that Russia was somehow involved in inciting the unrest in eastern Ukraine. As a response to the amassing of NATO troops, Moscow declared it had been forced to begin its own military drills close to the Russian border with Ukraine.

Hagel has urged NATO’s EU members to increase their defense spending in light of the recent events in Ukraine.

“We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO members,” Hagel said in a speech on the NATO alliance to be delivered at the Wilson Center and released by the Defense Department.

Russia said that the coup-appointed government in Kiev had irreparably severed the peace deal struck on April 17 in Geneva, after it launched a special operation in the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk.

“While Russia is making efforts to de-escalate and resolve the conflict, the Kiev regime has chosen military aviation strikes on peaceful residential areas and started a punitive operation, literally destroying the last hope for the viability of the Geneva accords,” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, said in a statement on Friday.

The Ukrainian army began a special operation against anti-government activists in the eastern town of Slavyansk on Friday morning. The city was blockaded by the Ukrainian military, with helicopters and APCs deployed to crack down on self-defense forces. Moscow has urged an immediate halt to the “punitive operation” and violence on Ukrainian civilians.

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BBC News – Ukraine : Pentagon says Russian jets violated airspace

Armed pro-Russia groups remain in control of seized buildings in eastern Ukraine

The US says Russian military aircraft have entered Ukrainian airspace several times in the past 24 hours, amid rising tension in the east of the country.

A Pentagon spokesman told the BBC on Friday that the incidents had happened mainly near the border with Russia, but gave no further details.

Earlier, pro-Russian separatists seized a bus carrying international military observers, Ukrainian officials said.

Talks were under way to secure their release near the town of Sloviansk.

Russia has tens of thousands of troops deployed along its side of the border with Ukraine as pro-Moscow separatists continue to occupy official buildings in a dozen eastern towns, defying the government in Kiev.

Also on Friday, US President Barack Obama and European leaders threatened to impose new sanctions on Russia, saying it has failed to implement an agreement to defuse the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia has accused the West of wanting to “seize” Ukraine.

In a statement from the Pentagon, Col Steven Warren repeated US calls to take “immediate steps to de-escalate the situation”.

He said the US had told Russian officials that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wanted to speak to his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, but there had been no response so far.

Mr Hagel described Russian activity along the Ukrainian border as “dangerously destabilising” and “very provocative”.

via BBC News – Ukraine crisis: Pentagon says Russian jets violated airspace.

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Coup no more ? US clears Egypt to receive Apache helicopters

The United States pledged 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt on Tuesday, easing back for the first time on sanctions placed against the country last year following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi.

Delivery of the choppers is intended to aid in counterterrorism operations, the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday, but comes only months after the US first suspended military aid to Egypt after the country’s interim government began harshly cracking down on dissidents and protesters.

“We believe these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten US, Egyptian and Israeli security,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

According to the statement released by the US military on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart, Col. Den. Sedki Soby, that US President Barack Obama has authorized the decision to deliver the helicopters.

Next, the Pentagon said, US Secretary of State John Kerry “soon will certify to Congress that Egypt is sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States and is meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.” That deal between America’s top Middle East ally on Egypt has for decades allowed Cairo to stand as one of the largest recipients of US military and economic aid.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon said that American officials have yet to be assured that Egypt is on a US-favored path so soon after last year’s uprising.

“Secretary Hagel told General Sobhy that we are not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” Kirby added, “and he urged the Egyptian government to demonstrate progress on a more inclusive transition that respects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Egyptians.”

Military aid to Egypt was suspended by the US last year after Pres. Morsi was ousted during a coup d’état led by Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, setting in motion the second government overthrow there in a span of just two years. Adly Mansour was installed as Egypt’s interim president last July after the removal of Morsi, and Al-Sisi is expected to win presidential elections scheduled there next month.

In a phone call this week with his Cairo-based counterpart, Sec. Kerry “urged Egypt to follow through on its commitment to transition to democracy – including by conducting free, fair and transparent elections,” State Dept. spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

The Guardian newspaper reported earlier this month that, according to government statistics, 16,000 dissidents have been arrested in Egypt since last July. Alleged terrorist operations have stayed rampant as well, however, and on Wednesday this week a senior Egyptian security official was killed by a car bomb placed by militants, according to local media reports cited by the Los Angeles Times.

US Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, said in a statement of her own published on Tuesday that she favored the Obama administration’s decision to deliver the Apaches to Egypt.

“As Egypt continues its transition toward a new democratic government, the United States must work with the government of Egypt and support the Egyptian people,” Granger said.

But the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has previously insisted that the US should suspend all aid once a military coup occurs.

Late last month, the Human Rights Watch humanitarian group wrote in a letter to Sec. Kerry that Egypt has failed to progress whatsoever with regards to improving democracy in the wake of the last two uprisings.

“The question is no longer whether Egypt is on the road to democratic transition, but how much of its brute repression the US will paper over,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “An accurate appraisal of Egypt’s record since the military-backed overthrow of President Morsi would conclude that, far from developing basic freedoms, the Egyptian authorities are doing the opposite.”

The United States pledged 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt on Tuesday, easing back for the first time on sanctions placed against the country last year following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi.

Delivery of the choppers is intended to aid in counterterrorism operations, the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday, but comes only months after the US first suspended military aid to Egypt .

“We believe these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten US, Egyptian and Israeli security,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

According to the statement released by the US military on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart, Col. Den. Sedki Soby, that US President Barack Obama has authorized the decision to deliver the helicopters.

Next, the Pentagon said, US Secretary of State John Kerry “soon will certify to Congress that Egypt is sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States and is meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.” That deal between America’s top Middle East ally on Egypt has for decades allowed Cairo to stand as one of the largest recipients of US military and economic aid.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon said that American officials have yet to be assured that Egypt is on a US-favored path so soon after last year’s uprising.

Military aid to Egypt was suspended by the US last year after Pres. Morsi was ousted during a coup d’état led by Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, setting in motion the second government overthrow there in a span of just two years. Adly Mansour was installed as Egypt’s interim president last July after the removal of Morsi, and Al-Sisi is expected to win presidential elections scheduled there next month.

In a phone call this week with his Cairo-based counterpart, Sec. Kerry “urged Egypt to follow through on its commitment to transition to democracy – including by conducting free, fair and transparent elections,” State Dept. spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

US Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, said in a statement of her own published on Tuesday that she favored the Obama administration’s decision to deliver the Apaches to Egypt.

“As Egypt continues its transition toward a new democratic government, the United States must work with the government of Egypt and support the Egyptian people,” Granger said.

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Tymoshenko addresses US Congress seeking military assistance

Ukraine needs comprehensive assistance, including military and technical aid that should comprise air defense and anti-mechanized equipment, the politician noted

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Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko

Ukraine’s presidential candidate, leader of Batkivshchyna party Yulia Tymoshenko has addressed the US Congress asking to provide military assistance to Ukraine. The relevant statement has been made public by the political party’s press service.

“I’m calling on the members of US Congress with a request to take every possible step towards supporting Ukraine, protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Tymoshenko says.

According to Batkivshchyna’s leader, “Ukraine needs comprehensive assistance, including military and technical aid that should comprise air defense and anti-mechanized equipment, as well as assistance in personnel training”.

In addition, Tymoshenko regards the final document of the four-party meeting between representatives of Ukraine, USA, EU and Russia as “the first step in the right direction”.

The talks brought together Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrii Deshchytsia, US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.

US decides on military assistance to Ukraine

April 17, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that Washington would provide assistance to armed forces and border service of Ukraine. According to Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department Marie Harf, the total value of this aid makes $6.5 million.

Harf specified that different commodities (medications, helmets, bedside rugs, water cleaning equipment) worth $3.5 million from the total amount would be provided by US State Department to Ukraine’s armed forces. The equipment worth $3 million (uniform, power generators) for Ukrainian border service would be allotted on behalf of the Pentagon, according to Marie Harf.

She added that this announcement was not the last regarding US assistance to Ukraine and pledged that American authorities would try to provide Ukraine with all the mentioned items as soon as possible.

As Chuck Hagel stated earlier, the decision to provide aid, which would not include arms and military equipment, was made by President Barack Obama. The defense secretary added that the president had already informed about this in his phone conversation with parliament appointed acting Defense Minister of Ukraine Mykhailo Koval. Additional military assistance to Ukraine from the USA is “non-lethal”, Pentagon’s chief said

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US sending 2 warships to Japan to counter NKorea

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera participate in a joint news conference at the Japanese Ministry of Defense headquarters Sunday April 6, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan

TOKYO (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a two-pronged warning to Asia Pacific nations Sunday, announcing that the U.S. will send two additional ballistic missile destroyers to Japan to counter the North Korean threat, and saying China must better respect its neighbors.

In unusually forceful remarks about China, Hagel drew a direct line between Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the ongoing territorial disputes between China, Japan and others over remote islands in the East China Sea.

“I think we’re seeing some clear evidence of a lack of respect and intimidation and coercion in Europe today with what the Russians have done with Ukraine,” Hagel told reporters after a meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. “We must be very careful and we must be very clear, all nations of the world, that in the 21st century this will not stand, you cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe.”

Hagel, who will travel to China later this week, called the Asian nation a “great power,” and added, “with this power comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power, how you employ that military power.”

He said he will talk to the Chinese about having respect for their neighbors, and said, “coercion, intimidation is a very deadly thing that leads only to conflict. All nations, all people deserve respect no matter how large or how small.”

Still, he said he looks forward to having an honest, straightforward dialogue with the Chinese to talk about ways the two nations and their militaries can work better together.

The announcement of the deployments of additional destroyers to Japan came as tensions with North Korea spiked again, with Pyongyang continuing to threaten additional missile and nuclear tests.

In recent weeks the North has conducted a series of rocket and ballistic missile launches that are considered acts of protest against annual ongoing springtime military exercises by Seoul and Washington. North Korea says the exercises are rehearsals for invasion.

North and South Korea also fired hundreds of artillery shells into each other’s waters in late March in the most recent flare-up.

Standing alongside Onodera at the defense ministry, Hagel said they discussed the threat posed by Pyongyang. He said the two ships are in response to North Korea’s “pattern of provocative and destabilizing actions” that violate U.N. resolutions and also will provide more protection to the U.S. from those threats.

On Friday, North Korea accused the U.S. of being “hell-bent on regime change” and warned that any maneuvers with that intention will be viewed as a “red line” that will result in countermeasures. Pyongyang’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Ri Tong Il, also said his government “made it very clear we will carry out a new form of nuclear test” but refused to provide details.

The two additional ships would bring the total to seven U.S. ballistic missile defense warships in Japan, and it continues U.S. efforts to increase its focus on the Asia Pacific.

The ships serve as both defensive and offensive weapons. They carry sophisticated systems that can track missile launches, and their SM-3 missiles can zero in on and take out short- to medium-range missiles that might be fired at U.S. or allied nations. They can also carry Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can be launched from sea and hit high-value targets or enemy weapons systems from afar, without risking pilots or aircraft.

Hagel is on a 10-day trip across the Asia Pacific, and just spent three days in Hawaii meeting with Southeast Asian defense ministers, talking about efforts to improve defense and humanitarian assistance cooperation. Japan is his second stop, where he said he wants to assure Japanese leaders that the U.S. is strongly committed to protecting their country’s security.

Japan and China have been engaged in a long, bitter dispute over remote islands in the East China Sea. The U.S. has said it takes no side on the question of the disputed islands’ sovereignty, but it recognizes Japan’s administration of them and has responsibilities to protect Japanese territory under a mutual defense treaty.

Onodera said he and Hagel talked about the islands, known as Senkaku by Japan and Diayou by China, and the concerns about any changes to the status quo there.

Hagel said the U.S. wants the countries in the region to resolve the disputes peacefully. But he added that the United States would honor its treaty commitments.

The ships are just the latest move in America’s effort to beef up Japan’s defenses. Last October, the U.S. and Japan agreed to broad plans to expand their defense alliance, including the decision to position a second early warning radar there by the end of this year. There is one in northern Japan and the second one would be designed to provide better missile defense coverage in the event of a North Korean attack.

The U.S. will begin sending long-range Global Hawk surveillance drones to Japan this month for rotational deployments. They are intended to help step up surveillance around the Senkaku islands.

AP

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Moscow: No troop build-up or undeclared military activity near Ukraine borders

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Russia is observing all international agreements on troop limits in regions bordering Ukraine, the Russian Deputy Defense Minister said, adding that foreign missions’ inspections can confirm that.

The statement was made in response to reports by several foreign media outlets over concentrations of “thousands” of Russian servicemen on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

“By the way this issue has during the last month been regularly raised in telephone conversations between Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, and his foreign counterparts, including US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and even acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh,” Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Deputy Defense Minister said.

Sergey Shoigu has, in a very transparent manner, informed all of them about the real situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border. He also stressed that Russia has no intention to concentrate troops there, Antonov said.

Following recent probes by foreign missions in Russia of Ukraine’s bordering regions, foreign inspectors came to the conclusion that “Russian Armed Forces are not undertaking any undeclared military activity that would threaten the security of neighboring countries,” Antonov added.

The official said eight foreign inspection groups have recently visited Russia.

“Our venues and regions, where troops are stationed near Ukrainian borders, have twice been checked by the Ukrainian military,” the Deputy Minister said. “Besides, we have had on our territory inspectors from the US, Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.”

Seven of those eight missions were interested in Russian regions bordering with Ukraine, Antonov said. Foreign inspectors were allowed to talk to chiefs of the Russian military units, make pictures of deployment sites and military vehicles, and control them during relocation.

“We did our best to meet our partners’ requests by allowing them to inspect all of the sites they wanted to. We have nothing to hide,” Antonov said.

The deputy minister said he was hoping that participants of those inspecting missions would inform their countries’ leaderships of what is really going on at the border between Russia and Ukraine.

“We believe this would to large extent facilitate release of tension, something the head of the Pentagon, Hagel, called for during his recent phone conversation with Minister Shoigu.”

Germans, French ‘nullified military co-op with Russia under pressure’

Berlin’s and Paris’ moves to halt military cooperation with Moscow are derailing the bilateral efforts of recent years and are completely unconstructive, Antonov said. However, according to the defense official, the two did so under pressure from their NATO ally.

“Obviously, the proverbial ‘Atlantic solidarity’ has made our French and German partners come up with loud statements against Russia,” Antonov said.

“Refusing from contacts and delegatory exchange though military departments brings to naught the positive tendencies established in the recent years, including the cooperation on Afghanistan, the dialogue on transparency of military activity and military-technical cooperation. We perceive the decision of the German side as taken under pressure and unconstructive,” Antonov stressed.

Both Russian and German defense ministries have recently undertaken some “serious efforts” in mutually beneficial cooperation, the official noted. He also highlighted the “unprecedented” bilateral work with France, including that of the Air Forces and Airborne Forces, noting that a “new impulse of cooperation” had been planned for 2014.

Addressing media on Sunday, Antonov stressed that Russia and its European partners are equally interested in military cooperation. It is “very easy to ruin what has been done by our countries [in the field of military cooperation] and it will be very difficult to restore relations,” he said.

The Russian side hopes that Germany and France will review the situation on the Ukrainian border upon receiving reports from the international inspectors and will move to restore the severed ties, Antonov said. For now, Moscow will act in accordance with the “existing realities,” he added.

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​US in tenuous sabre rattling over Ukraine

Under the pretext of “deterring Russian aggression” in Ukraine, the US Defense Department has announced plans to add several fighter jets to US aircraft squadrons based near Russian borders, in a move to embolden the Baltic states and Poland.

Following NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announcement that alliance officials would put “the entire range of NATO-Russia cooperation under review,” Pentagon head, Chuck Hagel, outlined plans on Wednesday to broaden military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states, without elaborating on the details.

An unnamed source told Reuters that the Pentagon plans to send six additional F-15 fighter jets, and a Boeing KC-135 refueling Stratotanker, to beef up the squadron of four F-15 currently flying air patrols over the Baltic states. NATO has been carrying out patrols in the Baltic states for the last 10 years.

In Poland the US Air Force has a training squadron of F-16 fighters and Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport planes, and the same source said that more aircrafts might be added there.

Washington is accusing Moscow of deploying troops to the Ukrainian region of Crimea and has already called off all planned exercises and training with the Russian military in protest.

It should be noted that according to a Russian-Ukrainian treaty signed in 2010, Moscow has an agreed and constant military presence in the Crimean peninsula. Russia pays Ukraine $97.75 million annually for use of the naval base in Sevastopol. The treaty underpins Russia’s right to bolster personnel in the Crimea to up to 25,000 troops.

Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine would take place only as a “last resort.”

“If we see this lawlessness starting in eastern regions, if the people ask us for help – in addition to a plea from a legitimate president, which we already have – then we reserve the right to use all the means we possess to protect those citizens. And we consider it quite legitimate,” he said.

Last week Russia’s Federation Council unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian military forces in Ukraine if civil rights of the Russian minority in the country are violated.

Western capitals remain skeptical of Moscow’s policy and continue to blame Russia of “military intervention” in Ukraine.

“This morning the Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies,” Hagel told American lawmakers, specifying that this will include expansion of aviation training in Poland and deployment of additional US aircraft for patrol missions in the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It is “time for all of us to stand with Ukrainian people in support of their territorial integrity,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The general dismissed Moscow’s assertion that Russian troops are not deployed in the Crimea peninsula in Ukraine and called to “deter further Russian aggression.”

Hagel also said that the head of the US European Command, General Philip Breedlove, also planned to hold consultations with central and eastern European defense chiefs.

‘Deterring Russian aggression’

After Crimea’s self-defense forces took control of the peninsula, Poland requested a NATO emergency meeting under the pretext of ‘Article 4’, which empowers any NATO member to request consultations if it believes its security, independence or territorial integrity are under threat.

“Regardless of the limited trust the world and Poland have to words spoken in Moscow, it must be said that we treat some of President Putin’s remarks as proof that pressure … to stop a brutal intervention, a paramilitary intervention in Crimea is working,” the Polish prime minister said last Tuesday, urging Russia to “abandon its aggressive plans toward Ukraine.”

This statement was made after Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Poland and Lithuania of inciting protests in the capital of Ukraine, and training the protesters who battled against police forces in Kiev.

Ukraine is not a NATO member country, yet the recent developments in Ukraine caused Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to make a statement that NATO plans to “intensify our partnership” and “strengthen our cooperation” with Ukraine in order to “support democratic reforms.”

Russia’s NATO envoy, Aleksandr Grushko, told reporters “that NATO still has a double standard policy” and that “Cold War stereotypes are still applied towards Russia.”

“Ukraine cannot join NATO because the West realizes what Kiev’s NATO membership would mean for Russia,” noted Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Nebenzya .

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Ukraine crisis: Pentagon sends jets to patrol the Baltics

Defense Secretary Chuck Hage

Defense Secretary Chuck Hage

The Pentagon will more than double the number of fighter jets it is sending to a Nato air policing mission in the Baltics as part of Washington’s response to the Ukraine crisis, officials have sai

The development came after the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, announced plans to bolster the decade-old mission, which patrols skies over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Officials said the Pentagon would send six additional F-15 jets and one KC-135 refuelling aircraft to “augment” the mission this week. The US already provides four F-15 jets to the mission.

The planes, reportedly based at RAF Lakenheath in the UK, will fly to the Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania.

“This action comes at the request of our Baltic allies and further demonstrates our commitment to Nato security,” a Pentagon official said. The Pentagon is now said to be “consulting” with Poland on a separate mission.

“This is a time for wise, steady and firm leadership,” Mr Hagel told a Senate panel. “It is a time for all of us to stand with the Ukrainian people in support of their territorial integrity and their sovereignty. We are doing that.”

via Ukraine crisis: Pentagon sends jets to patrol the Baltics – Europe – World – The Independent.

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Hagel shares concerns with Al-Sisi

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed the political transition in Egypt and the upcoming constitutional referendum with Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, in a phone call on Thursday morning.

A readout of the call was provided by Pentagon Press Secretary

Rear Admiral John Kirby. During the call Hagel conveyed the US’s commitment to “US-Egypt strategic relationship” and added that the US wishes to “continue working with Egypt to support a stable inclusive political transition.”

The US Defence Secretary however expressed his concerns regarding the recent charges brought against former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Wednesday, Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat ordered the referral of Morsi and several prominent Brotherhood figures to criminal court for charges of “espionage.” A statement from Barakat’s office on the decision was titled, “the largest case of espionage in the history of Egypt.”

Hagel was also concerned at “recent violence” against an NGO, in reference to the police raid of the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights during the late hours of Wednesday.

Hagel said “that civil society organizations play a vital role in any democracy” adding that “incidences such as these can undermine confidence in the interim government’s commitment to a non-violent, inclusive and sustainable democratic transition.”

The defense secretary indicated that the US was looking forward to the constitutional referendum, which is scheduled to take place, from 14 and 15 January. “They discussed the importance of a transparent process, in which freedom of expression is guaranteed for all citizens during the campaign period, regardless of whether they support or oppose the constitution,” the readout said.

On his recent visit to the Gulf, Hagel told Al-Sisi that he encouraged regional partners to play a constructive role in Egypt’s transition as well as to continue “playing a role in improving Egypt’s economy.”

While in Bahrain earlier this month, Hagel had met with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on the sidelines of the Ninth International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue. The two discussed regional and international issues related to Middle East security.

Hagel voices ‘US concerns’ over Egyptian constitution.

903US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed Washington’s concern over the arrests in the context of a restrictive new protest law. “Secretary Hagel noted that the Egyptian government’s response to free expression will demonstrate the interim government’s commitment to a non-violent, inclusive and sustainable democratic transition,” the Pentagon said. Hagel’s comments came during a call with Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on a range of topics.

The call came as the panel amending Egypt’s suspended constitution began voting Saturday on some 250 changes,

The constitution before the 50-member committee makes drastic changes in ensuring civil liberties, fighting discrimination, criminalizing torture, protecting religious freedoms and giving lawmakers power to remove the president. Yet the draft also allows Egypt’s powerful military to choose its own chief and try civilians in military tribunals.

“This is the path of rescue from the current condition,” said Amr Moussa, the elder Egyptian statesman leading the constitutional panel. “It is the transition from disturbances to stability and from economic stagnation to development.”

The military suspended the Islamist-drafted, voter-approved 2012 constitution in the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi. The constitutional panel, dominated by secularists, has been working on changes as part of a military-backed timeline that calls for voters to approve it. It plans for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held early next year.

On Saturday, 48 panel members began voting on the changes in a session aired live on state television. Most articles passed unanimously. One issue the panel faced was how the principles of Islamic law, or Shariah, already called the main source of law in Egypt, should be defined. Some feared a definition would allow for a heavier implementation of Shariah and the creation of a religious state.

The panel voted to refer to Supreme Constitutional Court’s limited definition of Shariah’s principles. That “didn’t appease the Islamist representative,” said panel member Kamal el-Helbawi, an independent who once belonged to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The panel voted for an amendment banning slavery, human trafficking and “the sex trade.” The panel’s sole Islamist party representative opposed the amendment, as some say the article restricts early marriages.

The panel also voted in favor of abolishing the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, as well as an amendment defining Egypt as a “civilian” government in Arabic. That term angers Islamists, who say it means secular.

Among articles the panel will vote on Sunday is one allowing lawmakers to vote out an elected president and call for early elections if they have a two-thirds majority. Another allows parliament to prosecute the president for “violating the rules of the constitution.”

A proposed change also prohibits the establishment of political parties on religious grounds, meaning the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and Al-Nour, the political arm of Salafi Call movement, could be banned.

Other controversial changes up for a vote include one giving the military the right to choose its own army chief, who serves as the defense minister, over a transitional period of eight years. Another gives the military the right to try civilians in front of military tribunals for a series of crimes. The tribunals are known for swift and harsh verdicts that cannot be appealed.

Once approved, the panel will hand the draft constitution to interim President Adly Mansour. Mansour has a month to call for a public vote on it.

The military-backed government hopes to pass the constitution with more support than Morsi’s constitution garnered. Only a third of voters cast ballots in 2012 and it passed by 63.8 percent. Billboards calling on voters to support the draft constitution already have been put up around the capital, Cairo, though some already have reservations about it.

“The constitution is better than the previous one, but it is not the best in general,” said leading civil rights lawyer Nasser Amin, an alternate member of the panel. “Polarization and divisions had its impact on the constitution.”

For  Egyptians, the constitution is the first step toward normalcy and stability after nearly three years of tumultuous political change that has dealt a heavy blow to the economy and plunged the parts of the country into lawlessness.

Meanwhile Saturday, a few kilometers (miles) from where the panel met, brief clashes broke out between riot police and protesters. The clash grew out of anger over the arrest of 24 activists Tuesday who held a demonstration in defiance of a new law heavily restricting protests.

The new law allows security agencies to bar protests not previously reported to authorities, while also setting prison terms and high fines for violators. It appears aimed at ending the near-daily protests by Islamists supporting Morsi and others opposing the military-backed interim government. The law has angered secularists as well.

On Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin called on authorities to review the law to show that the state was ready to listen to the country’s secular activists.

“It is not a shame and it does not detract from the prestige of the state to reconsider a law that will only widen the gap between the state and the youth,” Bahaa-Eldin said on his official Facebook page.