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German defence minister scraps US trip over soldier scandal
by Staff Writers
Berlin (AFP) May 2, 2017

US Army probes new soldier's Ukraine separatist past
Washington (AFP) May 2, 2017 - The US Army is investigating whether any recruitment procedures were violated when an American-French dual citizen enlisted despite having fought with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Washington Post reported Monday that 29-year-old Guillaume Cuvelier started basic training in January, even though he had espoused extreme right-wing French nationalist views and had fought for the Kremlin-backed Donetsk People's Republic in 2014.

"US Army Recruiting Command has initiated an inquiry to determine whether or not proper enlistment procedures were followed," Army spokesman Colonel Pat Seiber told AFP.

A March 2014 executive order bars US citizens from assisting the Donetsk People's Republic by way of "funds, goods or services."

According to his large digital footprint, Cuvelier also spent time fighting with the Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq before heading to America.

Now a private first class in the Army, Cuvelier grew up in Rouen, France, and graduated from university there in 2009, the Post said, citing his now-deleted Facebook profile.

Records show that in 2010 regional French elections, Cuvelier was a candidate for the Parti de la France, a nationalist party that is even more right-wing than the Front National from which it had splintered.

Kelli Bland, a spokeswoman for US Army Recruitment Command, said incoming soldiers are subject to a range of screening procedures including whether they have a criminal past or a history of gang or extremist activity.

"Being a member of a gang or other group that is associated with criminal activity or extremist views or actions is inconsistent with Army values, and applicants who are members are denied entry based on questionable moral character," Bland told AFP in a statement.

Cuvelier told the Post in a text-message exchange that he has changed.

"The Army is my only chance of moving on and cutting with my past," Cuvelier told the Post.

"I realized I like this country, its way of life and its Constitution enough to defend it."

"By publishing a story on me, you are jeopardizing my career and rendering a great service to anyone trying to embarrass the Army. My former Russian comrades would love it. ... so, I please ask you to reconsider using my name and/or photo," he added.

Bland said that dual citizens are subject to the same background checks as all US citizens.

But if a dual-national needs a security clearance, they require extra screening and could ultimately be asked to renounce their foreign citizenship.

Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday scrapped a US trip to deal with a scandal over a far-right soldier who allegedly plotted an attack while posing as a Syrian refugee.

Police last Wednesday arrested the 28-year-old army lieutenant, identified as Franco A., who had created a false identity as a Damascus fruit seller, complete with a spot in a German refugee shelter.

Federal prosecutors, who handle terrorism cases, have taken over the investigation against the soldier, whose case came to light after he was caught with a loaded gun at the Vienna airport in February.

Von der Leyen on Sunday harshly criticised the armed forces for leadership failures, attitude problems and for tolerating rightwing extremists, as well as sexual abuse cases, in its ranks.

The scandal widened when it emerged that the lieutenant had expressed rightwing extremist views in a 2014 academic paper, but that no disciplinary action was taken against him.

Von der Leyen criticised "a misunderstood esprit de corps" that had led superior officers to "look the other way".

Soldiers have reacted angrily, accusing her of collectively tarring them while failing to take responsibility herself.

Now the minister has called off a scheduled US visit and instead plans to visit Wednesday the Franco-German base near Strasbourg where the suspect had been stationed.

- 'Serious mistakes' -

"The minister's priority is to clear up the ongoing case around lieutenant A.," the defence ministry said.

On Thursday she plans to meet about 100 high-ranking military personnel in Berlin to discuss ways to reform the armed forces.

The military intelligence service is currently investigating around 280 cases of suspected far-right sympathisers in the forces.

The lieutenant was first temporarily detained in February by Austrian police after he tried to retrieve a loaded, unregistered handgun he had hidden in a toilet at Vienna airport.

This sparked an investigation in which a fingerprint check threw up an even bigger surprise -- the suspect had in December 2015 created a false identity as a Syrian refugee.

The soldier, who has an Italian father and German mother, had pretended to be a Damascus fruit seller named "David Benjamin" -- ostensibly a Catholic with Jewish roots who had fled the Islamic State militant group.

The Bild newspaper has reported that police found a "death list" compiled by the suspect, including anti-fascist leftwing activists.

Police have also arrested an alleged co-conspirator, a 24-year-old student identified by the media as Mathias F.

Von der Leyen and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, in charge of refugee issues, have vowed to clear up the embarrassing case, which led the Social Democrats' secretary general Katarina Barley to label the two ministers a "security risk" for Germany.

And the Social Democrats' parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann attacked de Maiziere over the "incredible" case, in which a light-haired applicant who spoke no Arabic was nonetheless registered as a refugee.

He said he worried what other "serious mistakes" had been made as authorities registered a mass influx of one million asylum seekers since 2015.

Philippines' Duterte gives China free pass over sea row
Manila (AFP) April 30, 2017
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte failed to condemn China's push to control most of the disputed South China Sea on Sunday after hosting a regional summit, handing Beijing a political victory. A day after taking centre stage as host of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders' meeting, Duterte released a bland chairman's statement that ignored last year's international ruling out ... read more

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