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US State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task Force
The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that it had created a Cuba Internet Task Force to promote "the free and unregulated flow of information" on the Communist-run island, an action denounced by Cuban state media as subversive.
"The task force will examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access and independent media in Cuba," the agency said in a statement. It said the task force of U.S. government and non-governmental representatives would meet for the first time on Feb. 7.
Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma said it was "destined to subvert Cuba's internal order."
"In the past, Washington has used phrases like 'working for freedom of expression' and 'expanding access to internet in Cuba' to cover up destabilizing plans," Granma wrote, adding that some 40 percent of Cubans connected to the internet in 2017, 37 percent more than in 2010.
Cuba has created public Wi-Fi hotspots and hooked up more homes to the internet, but most Cubans cannot get access on cellphones and only a tiny share of homes has broadband access.
The $1.50 hourly tariff for using a Wi-Fi hotspot in Cuba represents 5 percent of the average monthly state salary of $30.
Havana has said it has been slow to develop network infrastructure because of high costs, attributed partly to the U.S. trade embargo. Critics have said the government fears losing control.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama made improved internet access a central part of his efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. Telecommunications equipment and services were among the first exemptions to the embargo after Washington and Havana said in 2014 that they would restore diplomatic relations.
Google signed an agreement with Cuba in 2016 granting internet users there quicker access to its branded content.
Cuba has balked at allowing U.S. companies to participate in wiring the country.
US Pulled Multiple Ways in Syria as Islamic State Recedes
For the last few years, the United States could neatly sum its objective in Syria in a single, uncontroversial bullet point: fighting the Islamic State group. Now that the extremists have been squeezed from all but the last bits of their former territory, the Trump administration is struggling to define the boundaries of its mission, and how and when America's lengthy engagement will end.
A crisis between the U.S. and Turkey, triggered by the latter's new military offensive in Syria, has laid bare how a dizzying array of alliances in Syria is growing even more convoluted in the absence of IS as a major force. Either the Americans must abandon the Kurds who fought alongside them in Syria, or a profound rift with a NATO ally appears all but inevitable.
Although Turkey has long been incensed by U.S. military support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, calling them terrorists, the U.S. could make a compelling case while the Kurds spearheaded the anti-IS fight. As IS recedes as an immediate threat, the legs of that argument are falling away, fueling growing Turkish outrage that even the Trump administration acknowledges has some merit.
"This is a tough circle to square. It's the ultimate in heavy diplomatic lifting," said Frederic Hof, who oversaw Syria policy in the Obama administration's first term and is now at the Atlantic Council.
The Islamic State's retreat also has forced the U.S. to stretch thinner its legal rationale for operating in Syria. Doing so has raised delicate questions about whether Congress and the American people have truly signed off on a mandate for Syria that goes far beyond killing terrorists.
Senior Trump administration officials said they need no additional authorization to be in Syria because IS remains a serious and persistent threat, requiring a continued U.S. presence to ensure it doesn't regroup and again imperil Syria's future. To keep IS on its heels, America's military, diplomats and aid workers will work to stabilize the country and restore basic services in areas freed from IS control, while trying anew to engineer a political solution to the intractable civil war whose chaos IS so effectively exploited.
Such arguments create another problem, especially for a president often eager to claim successes: Trump cannot declare victory of any sort against IS in Syria without empowering those who argue IS' defeat means the U.S. has no business staying in Syria.
Small pockets of IS fighters still active in eastern Syria back up the U.S. justification — for now. On Tuesday, American airstrikes killed up to 150 IS fighters at a command center in the area known as the Middle Euphrates River Valley, the U.S.-led coalition said. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — comprised largely of Kurdish fighters — helped.
The U.S. sees another threat in al-Qaida's potential resurgence. It also wants to stem Iran's growing influence in Syria and Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. With Moscow's help, Assad's forces have moved into territory once held by Washington-backed rebels.
The Trump administration's messaging Tuesday highlighted Syria's combustible mix of conundrums for the United States.
In Asia, Defense Secretary James Mattis chastised Turkey for its offensive against the Kurds. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Paris and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations renewed accusations of Russian complicity in chemical weapons use, following claims of a new attack this week outside Damascus.
"Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims," Tillerson said at a meeting designed to ensure accountability for chemical weapons strikes. He noted Russia has twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions to allow inspection teams to prolong and expand probes of alleged chemical attacks.
Trying to explain America's Syria policy last week, Tillerson said the U.S. would retain a military presence there for the foreseeable future to prevent IS or al-Qaida from regaining territory. He cited another objective, too: assisting with reconstruction projects to encourage Syrians to reject Assad.
Turkey's angst about growing Kurdish strength near its border boiled over in recent days with the Turks launching a military operation against Afrin, a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria.
Turkey considers Syrian Kurdish forces to be intrinsically linked to the PKK, an insurgency the Turks have battled for decades. The U.S. concurs that PKK fighters are terrorists, but insists that its Kurdish partners in Syria are unconnected to that group.
Turkey and the Kurds, who led the offensive to retake the former IS capital of Raqqa, feel entitled to U.S. support. So the Trump administration has tried to split the difference, acknowledging Turkey's security concerns while urging "restraint." That balance hasn't quelled the situation.
"The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria," Mattis lamented in Indonesia. "It distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS."
For the Kurds, an ethnic minority in multiple countries of the region who've been abandoned by more powerful allies before, the result could be worse than distraction. The U.N. says an estimated 5,000 people have been displaced by fighting in northern Syria, and it's unclear what the U.S. is willing to do to calm the situation.
Asked if Washington had a moral obligation to the Kurds, senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said Trump's "America first" doctrine dictated that the U.S. always prioritize its own interests.
Teen Arrested in Kentucky School Shooting That Leaves 2 Dead, 12 Wounded
A 15-year-old boy opened fire with a handgun just before classes started at his high school in rural western Kentucky on Tuesday, killing two fellow students and wounding a dozen other youths before he was arrested, the state's governor and police said.
The shooter, who has not been identified, entered a common area at Marshall County High School in Benton shortly before 8 a.m. (1400 GMT), pulled out a pistol and began firing at students, witnesses told local media.
The suspect will be charged with two counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder, the Kentucky State Police said. Police have not released a motive for the shooting but said they believed the gunman acted alone.
The students killed were Bailey Hope, a 15-year-old girl, and Preston Cope, a 15-year-old boy, state police said. Five of the victims were in critical condition, police said, but hospital officials said they expected all those injured in the incident to survive.
"I see this guy draw from his side and he pulls out a pistol. I didn't even know what was going on. And then it registered. About the time it registered, this guy was sitting here pulling the trigger into all of us," student Bryson Conkwright told TV station WKRN.
"I can hear the gunshots. He was shooting in our group," said Conkwright, showing where a bullet grazed his hand.
At least one hospitalized student suffered a broken jaw from falling and being trampled while trying to escape, Marshall County prosecutor Jeff Edwards said in a phone interview.
Fourteen students were hit by gunfire, including the two who were killed, and five others suffered injuries in the ensuing chaos.
Edwards toured the school where he, his wife and their children all graduated from, describing signs of the scramble to flee from the gunfire.
Backpacks, cellphones and clothes were strewn in the main area where the shooting occurred, he said.
"When it happened, apparently everyone left everything laying," Edwards said. “It made it real, seeing the disarray."
A wounded community
The bloodshed at the school of nearly 1,150 students in a small farming town was the latest outbreak of gun violence that has become a regular occurrence at schools and college campuses across the United States over the past several years.
The school serves Marshall County, which has a population of about 31,000, and the shooting hit the community hard. Local churches are planning vigils on Tuesday night and Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin's voice choked with emotion and he paused to collect himself at a news conference.
"This is a wound that is going to take a long time to heal. And for some in this community, it will never fully heal," he said. "There's no good answer for it," Bevin said. "There's 1,000 hypotheses we're not going to go into."
Bevin said the suspect was apprehended at the school "in a nonviolent" manner, but did not elaborate.
Students followed training they had recently received from state police in how to respond to such incidents, authorities said, crediting police for quickly arriving on the scene and apprehending the suspect.
Helicopters took five victims, including the boy who later died, to the nearest Level 1 Trauma Center, about 120 miles (190 km) away at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have joined the investigation.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said President Donald Trump had been briefed on the shooting.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the families there," she said.