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Russia Vows to Prevent Bloodshed in Ukraine as Forces Control Missile Unit in Crimea

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 13:04

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed to prevent bloodshed in Ukraine as forces partly occupied a second missile defense unit in Crimea.

"We will not allow bloodshed. We will not allow attempts against the lives and wellbeing of those who live in Ukraine and Russian citizens who live in Ukraine," visiting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Madrid.

A day after U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia was "not fooling anybody" over its role in Ukraine, Lavrov insisted the armed troops were not taking orders from the Kremlin.

"If they are the self-defense forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them," Lavrov said.

"They do not receive our orders," he said.

The Russian foreign minister, who left Madrid for a Paris meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after the conference, said Moscow would not allow bloodshed to erupt in Ukraine.

"We will not allow bloodshed. We will not allow attempts against the lives and wellbeing of those who live in Ukraine and Russian citizens who live in Ukraine," he said.

Ukrainian troops remain blocked inside their barracks in Crimea in the gravest stand-off between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Lavrov's meeting with Kerry will be their first since Ukraine's Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after three months of pro-European Union protests which left nearly 100 dead.

Meanwhile, at one base in Cape Fiolent, near the city of Sevastopol in southern Crimea, Russian soldiers hold some parts of the base although the missile depot remains in Ukrainian hands, Volodymyr Bova, a defense ministry spokesman in the disputed Black Sea peninsula, told Agence France Presse.

Pro-Moscow forces are also in partial control of a second base in Evpatoria, which does not have missiles on its grounds.

Ukrainian soldiers still held the command post and control center there, said another spokesman for the defense ministry in Kiev, Oleksey Mazepa.

The takeovers seemed to have occurred without any violence, officials said.

Some 20 Russian soldiers, backed by hundreds of pro-Moscow forces, had already tried to occupy the Evpatoria base on Tuesday evening, leading to some skirmishes although no shots were fired.

Russian-speaking Crimea has come under de-facto control by pro-Russian forces since the ousting of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych and the installation of a new pro-European government in Kiev.

Putin however continues to deny there are any Russians operating in Crimea, insisting that gunmen that many have identified as Russian soldiers were in fact "local self-defense forces."


Ukraine crisis: Russia to hold talks with Nato in bid to avert war

US secretary of state John Kerry to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov as Europe discusses possible sanctions

Agencies, Wednesday 5 March 2014 08.56 GMT   
The US and Russia are to hold talks on easing east-west tensions over Ukraine as the west steps up efforts to persuade Moscow to pull its forces back to base in Crimea and avert the risk of a war.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will meet face-to-face for the first time since the crisis escalated, after a conference in Paris attended by all five permanent members of the UN security council.

Nato and Russia will hold parallel talks in Brussels amid concerns that a standoff between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea could still spark violence, or that Moscow could also intervene in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday could decide on sanctions against Russia if there is no "de-escalation" by then.

"We're working on it," Fabius told the BFM television network ahead of a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart. "There is no military solution."

In Donetsk -– the home of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych and a flashpoint of tensions between pro-Russian and nationalist Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine – Ukrainian police seized the city's government headquarters from pro-Russian demonstrators who had occupied it. On Wednesday morning, the Ukrainian flag was raised above the building, replacing the Russian flag that had flown there since Saturday, when protests had erupted following the announcement by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, that he had the right to invade.

Protesters led by a man who declared himself "people's governor" had been barricaded in the regional administration building demanding relations with Kiev be severed and control of the security forces placed in their hands.

A police statement said the evacuation began after reports the building had been booby-trapped with explosives.

Putin on Tuesday defended Russia's actions in Crimea, a strategic Black Sea peninsula that is part of Ukraine but used to be Russian territory, and said he would use force only as a last resort.

His comments eased market fears of a war over the former Soviet republic. But Russian forces remain in control of the region and Putin gave no sign of pulling servicemen – based in Crimea as part of the Black Sea fleet – back to base.

"What he wants above all is a new empire, like the USSR but called Russia," former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko told France's Europe 1 radio.

In Washington, Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine but said that did not give Putin the right to intervene militarily.

"President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations," the US president said. "But I don't think that's fooling anybody."

A senior US administration official said Obama spoke to the German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday and discussed a potential resolution to the crisis. The Russian-speaking German leader has good relations with the German-speaking Putin, and Berlin is Russia's biggest economic partner.

The official said Obama, in his phone call with Putin last Saturday, had discussed what officials called an "off-ramp" to the crisis in which Russia would pull its forces in Crimea back to their bases and allow international monitors to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are protected.

The US president will stay away from a G8 summit scheduled for Sochi, Russia, in June unless there is a Russian reversal in the Ukraine crisis, the official added.

At his first news conference since the crisis began, Putin said on Tuesday that Russia reserved the right to use all options to protect compatriots who were living in "terror" in Ukraine but that force was not needed for now.

His comments, coupled with the end of Russian war games near Ukraine's borders, lifted Russian bonds and stock markets around the world after a panic selloff on Monday.

In comments ridiculed by US officials, Putin denied Russian armed forces were directly engaged in the bloodless seizure of Crimea, claiming that the uniformed troops without national insignia were "local self-defence forces".

The French president, Françcois Hollande, became the latest western leader to raise the possibility of sanctions if Putin did not step back and accept mediation. He set out a tougher public line than Merkel, who has avoided talk of sanctions so far.

"The role of France alongside Europe … is to exert all necessary pressure, including a possible imposition of sanctions, to push for dialogue and seek a political solution to this crisis," Hollande told an annual dinner of France's Jewish community leaders late on Tuesday.

Putin earlier said western sanctions under consideration against Russia would be counter-productive. A senior US official said Washington was ready to impose them in days rather than weeks.

The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, said after speaking to Obama at the weekend that the G7 group of leading industrialised nations were considering meeting in the near future, a move that would pointedly exclude Russia. The G7 became the G8 in 1998 when Russia was formally included.

Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, accused Moscow of seeking a pretext to invade more of the country. He said the US was not seeking a confrontation and would prefer to see the situation managed through international institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Yanukovych was expected to meet Lavrov, Hollande and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, on the sidelines of a Paris conference on Lebanon, before holding private talks with the Russian minister later in the day in the French capital.

Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchitsia, was also in Paris for talks with French officials and Kerry. It was not clear if he too would meet Lavrov.

No major incidents were reported in Crimea overnight. But in a sign of the fragility of the situation, a Russian soldier on Tuesday fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing the Ukrainian flag towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near Sevastopol.

After a standoff in which the two commanders shouted at each other and Russian soldiers levelled rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers at the Ukrainians, the incident was defused and the Ukrainians eventually dispersed. No one was hurt.

The Ukrainian border guard service said Russian navy ships had blocked both ends of the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, but Ukraine's infrastructure ministry said the 2.7-mile (4.5-km) wide waterway was still open for civilian shipping.


Deep divisions split Donetsk as tensions simmer across Ukraine

Pro-Moscow clique seizes government building in city while protesters outside wave blue and yellow flag of Ukraine

Harriet Salem in Donetsk
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 21.17 GMT   

Inside the occupied government building, teenagers strolled through the regional council chamber and took selfies in the speaker's chair, now flanked by the flags of Russia and the Soviet-era independent republic of Donetsk.

Riot policemen with shields and helmets lined the corridors, but they seemed in no particular hurry to remove the pro-Russian activists who had burst into the 11-storey building a day before and appointed their own "people's governor".

"We will not leave until our demands are met," said Olexsander, aged 42, a self-appointed commander in the "local resistance" camped out in the council chamber. "Donetsk belongs with Russia," he said.

Pro-Russian groups have called on local deputies to declare the government in Kiev illegitimate, to put all security forces under regional control and to withhold taxes from the capital. They also want a referendum on the region's future status – although they have yet to agree on the question to be asked, and the new government in Kiev has said that any such vote would be illegal.

But while the Russian tricolour still fluttered over the parliament building on Tuesday night, hundreds of protesters gathered in the square outside, waving the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, and calling for the country to come together in unity.

In the wake of Russia's armed intervention in Crimea, tensions are simmering across the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine.

Reports that Russian military vehicles had gathered on Ukraine's border near Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk have triggered rumours that the Kremlin is preparing to pull another intervention in Ukraine's eastern regions.

Kiev says Moscow has organised the demonstrations and sent hundreds of Russian citizens across the frontier to stage protests which would provide the pretext for a military advance – a charge which was vehemently denied by protestors in the Donetsk parliament.

"I can tell you from my heart this is absolutely not true. The people here are only locals," said Olexsander.

Large pro-Russian demonstrations have been held in Odessa, Kharkiv and Donetsk, and Russian flags raised atop administrative buildings. The Kharkiv protests descended into violence when counter-demonstrators calling for Ukrainian unity were badly beaten by Russian nationalists.

The deep divisions in Donetsk – the home town of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych – were acted out over the course of the day in a series of rival protests for and against Ukrainian unity.

Many locals feel marginalised by the new administration in Kiev, which they describe as the fruit of a power grab by pro-Western "bandits".

In the morning, several hundred people gathered outside the occupied parliament, calling for eastern Ukraine to join Russia. Addressing the crowd over a loudspeaker, one woman asked why the pro-European demonstrators had been consecrated as heroes, while the Berkut riot police unit – blamed for the deaths of dozens of protesters – has been disbanded.

"Why are our boys not heroes? They suffered in Kiev. They were beaten and humiliated, made to go on their knees. Now they are all forgotten. They were just fired from their jobs. If they had not protected us, then those mad protesters would have burnt the whole of Kiev," she said.

Tensions ran high when a pro-Europe group mounted a counter-demonstration. "We are not trying to separate the country," said one man angrily. "The protesters in Kiev pretended to stand for peace and freedom, but they are hijacking the whole country".

But later on a string of "pro-unity" demonstrations across the city attracted people from many walks of life.

Waving a Ukrainian flag alongside several other local clergy, Maxim Gorinov, 37, a pastor at a local evangelical church, said he wanted Donetsk to stay in Ukraine.

"I am Russian, my family speaks Russian, but I am against separatism. We don't want Russian troops here to separate us by force," he said.

Significantly, the unity movement in Donetsk is backed by "ultras" – fanatical supporters of the local Shakhtar football club, one of Ukraine's two top teams. In the violent street protests which eventually forced Yanukovych to flee the country, Shakhtar ultras fought alongside their arch-rivals from Kiev's Dynamo. On Sunday the ultras from each team played against each other in the country's capital in a continued display of unity. The game ended in an uncontroversial 1-1 draw.

On Tuesday evening the largest pro-unity rally in Donetsk attracted more than one thousand people. Protesters carried Ukrainian flags and chanted "Donbas is Ukraine" and "Putin go home". Shakhtar football club ultras flanked ordinary demonstrators saying they were there "to protect the people".

"Why should we have a referendum? It is unconstitutional for Donetsk to do this on its own", said Dimitry Goryainov, a urologist who joined the rally. "We are against the separation of Ukraine," he added. "The main problem here is people are scared the new government needs to reassure them by calling parliamentary elections after the presidential election."

Even the members of the local Cossacks – a staunchly pro-Russian group – are firmly against military intervention by Moscow.

"Ukraine can solve its internal problems on its own," said the Cossacks' leader, Vadim Zhmarin. "We are against any troops entering Ukrainian soil – Nato or Russia," he added.

Unity activists' leaders claimed a moral victory, and said an even bigger march will be held on Wednesday. Alex Ryabchyn, a unity activist and PhD student, said he had never seen so many Ukrainian flags flying in Donetsk as he had now. "This really is a historical day for our city," he added.

Inside the parliament, pro-Russian demonstrators bedded down for the night.

• The headline of this article was amended on 5 March 2014 to more accurately reflect its contents.


Ukraine: Putin's headaches

There are still factors beyond the control of Russia's president: the economy, regional resistance, and the Crimea's Tatars

Phillip Inman, Ian Traynor and Peter Walker   
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 20.01 GMT   

Following the 2010 election of Viktor Yanukovych as president, Ukraine relied increasingly on Russia for trade and investment. But what was once a steady source of income for Putin's oligarch friends could prove Ukraine's undoing - and lead to its eventual departure from Moscow's friendly embrace. In the last two years few international investment agencies have been prepared to put their money into Kiev. Private investment has collapsed and ageing industrial equipment has become more outdated and less productive. The World Bank ranked Ukraine 137 out of 183 economies in its Doing Business Report in 2013.A falling currency has seen foreign income from the sale of wheat, corn and sunflower oil decline despite increases in production; industrial export income has slumped while imports continued a steady climb. The result has been a balance of payments crisis made worse by a prolonged recession. The central bank has spent most of its foreign reserves propping up the currency and the government has run annual deficits just to keep the lights on.

The International Monetary Fund was due to offer Kiev a lifeline last summer but pulled out after it became obvious Yanukovych was unwilling to push through reformsto government supply contracts, new banking regulations and end state subsidies that favoured Ukraine's own oligarch community. Corruption not only scared off the Washington-based lender of last resort, it has changed the face of Ukraine's fledgling western-style economy by forcing thousands of small and medium-sized businesses to hand over control to conglomerates run by oligarchs.

Should Kiev's new government agree to the IMF's reforms, it could spell disaster for Russian oligarchs as much as Ukraine's homegrown billionaires. An IMF deal, possibly supplemented by John Kerry's $1bn offer of loan guarantees and something similar from the EU, would allow another look at the estimated $25bn of loans the government and banks cannot afford to cover. IMF officials would want to see legal documents to support loans and without them would likely cancel the debt. Without a loan, hundreds of businesses, including Russian firms lubricated by Ukrainian bank cash, could be forced to sell their assets on the cheap.

Loans considered legitimate would also lose out. Past IMF deals show that lenders would be made to wait up to five years before interest payments restarted.

The silver lining for Moscow is that a healthy Ukrainian economy would want more of Russia gas and oil - and would have the money to pay for them.

Regional reaction

Vladimir Putin is expected to meet the allied leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan on Wednesday in an attempt to shore up regional support for his campaign in Ukraine, amidst rumblings of nervousness from neighbouring countries. The meeting with Alexander Lukashenko, the dictatorial leader of Belarus, bordering Ukraine, Russia and the European Union, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, has been brought forward by a week because of the Ukrainian crisis. The three countries are the sole members of Russia's Eurasia Union, the trading bloc that the Kremlin is seeking to form as its answer to the EU and which it wants Ukraine to join. Armenia, dependent on Russia for military support in its longrunning conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, has agreed to join the Russia-dominated bloc after spurning trade and political pacts with Brussels.

Putin is unlikely to hear any opposition from Lukashenko, but Nazarbayev has been voicing worries that the crisis is a risk for the region. He demanded a "thorough exchange of opinions and discussion of measures to prevent dangerous trends in the current situation," according to his press service.

The three leaders discussed Ukraine on Monday, focusing, according to the Kremlin, on the alleged dangers facing ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

"The parties discussed the developing crisis in Ukraine which creates real danger to the life and legitimate interests of the Russian-speaking population, in the first place in Crimea and eastern regions of that country," the Kremlin said.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union or in the broader eastern bloc, the alarm about Putin has reached fever pitch. The Baltic countries and the rest of eastern Europe are all Nato and EU members. Poland has been leading the calls for action against Russia, dubbing the Ukraine crisis the most dangerous in Europe since the wars in Yugoslavia. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are solidly on Ukraine's side against Russia. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland released a statement on Tuesday recalling Soviet interventions in their countries in 1956, 1968, and 1981, deploring the Russian conduct and calling for a stiff international response.
Crimean Tatars

For all the merits of Moscow's arguments that Crimea's ethnic Russian population feels betrayed by a Kiev-led move to cut ties with Moscow, there is another group in the region with a considerably longer history in the region: the Tatars. Descended from the Golden Horde, the western edge of the Mongol empire, which flourished for about a century after Genghis Khan's death, the Turkic-speaking Tatars have been in Crimea since around the end of the 14th century, remaining there after the Mongol empire broke up.

The Muslim Tatars have faced a difficult and sometimes brutal modern existence in Crimea, with large numbers of Russians moving into the region under the Tsars, while hundreds of thousands of Tatars relocated to Turkey.

The early years of Soviet rule marked something of a revival for the Tatars, with their language given official status alongside Russian in the so-called Crimean Autonomous Socialist Republic, set up by Moscow in 1921. But under Stalin the Tatars suffered terribly, facing famine under Stalin's agricultural programmes as well as campaigns of Russification, which obliged them to use the Cyrillic alphabet for their language.

In 1944 Stalin decreed that all Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Nazis following the German occupation of Crimea, and 200,000 of them were deported to central Asia and other remote regions. Many died en route, and mosques were destroyed. It was not until 1967 that the USSR ruled that the mass deportations had been unjust, but even then leaders in Moscow made no efforts to assist their return. Some Tatars began to trickle home from exile in the late 1980s, finding a region now dominated by Russians and Ukrainians. With Ukrainian independence – Crimea had been given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Krushchev in a move seen at the time as a purely symbolic act – and many more returned. They now number about 240,000, around 12% of the country's population.

The Tatar population is mainly rural, and has enjoyed relative autonomy under Ukrainian rule, with representation in the national parliament. While there are exceptions, the Tatar population is assumed to be strongly in favour of Crimea staying under the control of Kiev rather than again passing into Russian hands. Writing in the Washington Post, Oxana Shevel, a specialist in post-communist politics at Tufts University, said that any Russian attempt to hold on to Crimea would face "sustained and mobilised opposition" from the Tatars. "When faced with the choice of being under either Russian or Ukrainian control, the Crimean Tatar leadership has consistently and unequivocally chosen Ukraine," she wrote.


Russian propaganda and Ukrainian rumour fuel anger and hate in Crimea

The Russian media is serving up a crude portrayal of events as a patriotic fight against fascists in Kiev and spurring its own far-right into action

Shaun Walker in Sevastopol
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 19.41 GMT   
Anyone spending any amount of time in Crimea at the moment will hear the words "Nazi" and "fascist" a lot. The protests in Kiev, people across the region will insist, were a Nazi-inspired revolt, backed by the west, and that is why the Russian operation to "protect" Crimea from such Nazis was so necessary.

Certainly, there were unsavoury elements among the Kiev protests, and there are a number of people with unpleasant far-right views that hold positions in the new interim government. Many people in western Ukraine do hold complicated views about the wartime period, and many in Russia are understandably concerned by the veneration by small parts of the protest movement of controversial collaborationist leaders.

"You Brits don't understand about fascism but we fought against Nazi Germany," said a 62-year-old Simferopol resident, Viktor Varazin. "We know what fascism is and we will never let it take hold here. Thank God the Russians are here."

Russian state television has gone out of its way to manufacture an image of the protests as a uniquely sinister phenomenon; a far-right movement backed by the west with the ultimate goal of destabilising Russia.

Back in December, a Russian state television reporter doing a live report from Kiev was accosted by a protester on air and had an Oscar statuette thrust into his hands. "Pass this Oscar to your channel … for the lies and nonsense you are telling people about Maidan," he said.

Since then, the rhetoric has only intensified on Russian television. In the last week, there have been claims that gangs of "unknown armed people" have crossed from Ukraine into Russia, without offering any evidence. There have also been suggestions that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian "refugees" have been forced to flee Ukraine for Russia, prompting a humanitarian crisis. (The pictures used by one Russian channel of border queues turned out to be routine queues at a Ukraine-Poland border.)

News programmes regularly refer to the Kiev protesters as "terrorists", "insurgents" or "fighters", and the rightwing and anti-Russian nature is emphasised. It is not just Russian media peddling the rumours. Opposition-minded channels in Ukraine have also been full of misinformation, although it is often a case of unverified rumours reported as fact. There was barely a day in January and February when Ukrainian media did not report planeloads of Russian special forces secretly landing in Kiev, or other nefarious but implausible manoeuvres by Viktor Yanukovych.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Russian propaganda is that it is clear that many inside the Kremlin actually believe it. In December, a Russian government source assured the Guardian that the Kiev protests were the preserve of radical marginals, and that the rest of the city had no time at all for its goals.

On Tuesday, Putin conceded that he understood that there were some normal people on Independence Square who were tired of Ukrainian corruption, but there is nevertheless a sense in the Kremlin that the entire protest was a western-backed plot, as evidenced by Putin's claims that they were organised by "people sitting in America doing experiments, like on rats".

An insight into the thinking is given by Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst and politician, who is in Crimea meeting with local officials. When asked for his view on the Kiev protests, he said: "The plan it seems to me to was very clear. Give Ukraine a Mikheil Saakashvili type leader. Start a big anti-Russian campaign, train the army to Nato standards, fill everyone with anti-Russian ideology, and then throw the Ukrainian army into Russia at a time when a coup is being organised. I haven't spoken to Putin about it personally, but I am certain he thinks the same."

On the ground in Crimea, what is particularly odd is that the most vociferous defenders of Russian bases against supposed fascists appear to hold far-right views themselves.

Outside the Belbek airbase, an aggressive self-defence group said they were there to defend the base against "Kiev fascists", but also railed against Europe, "full of repulsive gays and Muslims".

"What you foreigners don't get is that those people in Maidan, they are fascists," said Alexander, a Simferopol resident drinking at a bar in the city on Monday night. "I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don't like fascists."

Even among less radical locals, there is a strong conviction that the western press has lied about the conflict and tension. Journalists have been physically attacked on several occasions, and crowds will frequently berate western reporters for their biased coverage.

"We know you have your orders from your masters to destroy Russia, but try to explain the truth – we welcome the Russians here because we don't want to live among fascists," said one angry woman outside a surrounded Ukrainian marines base in Feodosia on Sunday.

For all that state television has been pushing the Nazi comparisons, there is rather less tolerance when the boot is on the other foot. Andrei Zubov, a professor at a top Moscow university linked to the diplomatic service, wrote a column in the respected Vedomosti newspaper on Saturday comparing Putin's potential annexation of Crimea with the Anschluss of Austria and Nazi Germany in 1938. On Tuesday, he said the university had fired him for the comparison.


Five fibs from Vladimir: how Putin distorted the facts about Ukraine

Russian president's first press conference on crisis revealed rather subjective interpretation of events, writes Alec Luhn

Alec Luhn in Moscow, Tuesday 4 March 2014 16.49 GMT   
Vladimir Putin broke his silence over the crisis in Ukraine on Tuesday, addressing a press conference in Moscow that was delayed by what a state television channel called a hacking attack.

After politely writing down reporters' questions, Putin launched into a tirade against the new government in Kiev, at one point even demanding that a reporter say whether or not he agreed that the transfer of power in Kiev had been an "unconstitutional coup".

In the course of the diatribe, Putin distorted several facts. Here are five of the best:

1. The unidentified armed men who took control of Crimea were local self-defence units

Although the uniforms did not have insignia, they were easily identified as Russian army issue. The men also seemed suspiciously well trained. Putin argued that anyone could have bought Russian uniforms: "The post-Soviet space is full of such uniforms."

Yet the military-grade weapons that the troops were carrying, from Kalashnikovs to Dragunov sniper rifles to bazookas, are not as easy to explain away. Also, Guardian reporters have seen unidentified troops taking over Crimean airbases driving in military vehicles with Russian plates, which the foreign ministry has admitted are moving around the peninsula.

2. Western-backed forces carried out the coup

Putin said that the downfall of former president Viktor Yanukovych's government had been backed by western countries and incited by people "sitting in America doing experiments, like on rats", adding: "I think that this was all well prepared. Of course there are military units and they are there to this day, they are well-prepared and in this the western instructors did well."

While western donors have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups campaigning against Yanukovych's regime, there is no evidence that either the US or UK have trained opposition forces militarily. The so-called "self-defence units" which took part in the pro-European protests did not appear to have any military training, displaying instead some poor discipline and relying on improvised equipment such as motorcycle helmets and table legs.

3. Protesters in Ukraine were killed by former opposition snipers

The president said that the dozens of anti-Russian protesters killed by sniper bullets were victims of their own leaders. "There is the opinion that [snipers shot] on the orders of one of the opposition parties," he said, despite eyewitness accounts of police snipers shooting protesters. While Putin cited "freely available information" to back his claim, there is also video footage of snipers in police uniforms shooting at people.

4. Pro-Europe demonstrators shot and burned former ruling party employees

Putin claimed that protesters had shot one employee of the former ruling party and set another on fire. In reality, protestors threw stones and Molotov cocktails at a Party of Regions office on 18 February, after which a fire broke out. Emergency services rescued several people but were not able to save one office worker who died in the blaze. There were no credible reports that anyone had been shot.

5. Yanukovych is the legitimate president of Ukraine

When it came to the ousted Yanukovych government, Putin seemed to want to have his cake and eat it . On the one hand, the Russian president said he agreed with protesters that Ukraine's previous regimes were all "crooks" and admitted Yanukovych had no power and no political future. On the other, he still insisted Yanukovych remained the legitimate president.


Ukraine's Hungarian Minority Nervous as Crisis Rages

by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 March 2014, 19:17

Ukraine's 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, feared as potential fifth columnists for ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, face a growing threat from far-right nationalists.

In the region of western Transcarpathia, the large Hungarian minority has grown increasingly uneasy.

Stick-wielding members of Pravy Sektor, the far-right paramilitary group that was on the frontline of bloody protests to depose Yanukovych in Kiev in February, stormed the town hall in Berehove, a town of around 24,000 people, last week.

A government building in the regional capital of Uzhhorod has been occupied since mid-February, with Pravy Sektor activists in red and black armbands standing guard outside.

"Chaos reigns here, police are invisible, people are afraid," said Zoltan Babjak, mayor of Berehove.

Hungarians make up around half the town's population, and around 12 percent of Transcarpathia as a whole.

They strongly backed Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election, seeing him as more supportive of minority rights than Ukraine nationalists such as his predecessor Yulia Tymoshenko.

Yanukovych scrapped a Tymoshenko directive that college entrance exams should be in Ukrainian only and officially recognized minority languages in 2012.

One of the first acts of the new government last week was to overturn these measures, drawing ire from minority groups.

"Many (Hungarians) voted for Yanukovych in 2010 knowing that he was corrupt and ruinous for the economy," Elemer Koszeghy, editor of a Transcarpathian Hungarian-language newspaper, told Agence France Presse.

"The point was he wouldn't hammer them for not being Ukrainian like Tymoshenko did."

Such sentiments get short shrift from the group occupying the Uzhhorod government building.

"We like Hungarians and the other minorities here. We want them to be part of building a European Ukraine, but we have to fight the Russians," said Andriy Fedunets, 20, in the lobby of the building, as he watched footage from Crimea on a laptop.

Transcarpathia, cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian mountains, was part of Hungary until after World War I.

It then changed hands several times, falling under Soviet rule after World War II when thousands of Ukrainians and Russians were settled in the region.

Some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Kiev and bordering Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, it finally became part of independent Ukraine in 1991.

Some 1.2 million people live there, with Hungarians the largest in a patchwork of ethnic groups.

This has not endeared the Hungarian minority to the new interim government that emerged from the Maidan movement, named after Kiev's central Independence Square that was the epicenter of the protests.

"Some Ukrainians say we are 'anti-Maidan'," said Viktoria Szabo, a 20-year-old waitress in Berehove.

Now locals are fearful that they may even be drawn into a possible armed conflict over Ukraine's Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea jutting into the Black Sea.

"We have bad experiences of fighting in other people's wars," Szabo says, referring to ethnic Hungarians conscripted to fight in Yugoslavia during the 1990s wars.

"This region is more central European than eastern, it's peaceful, tolerant," Laszlo Brenzovics, head of a Hungarian-language college in Berehove, told AFP.

"What happens in Kiev or Crimea is none of our business," said Szabo. "It's not our fight."


Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama engage in war of words over Ukraine

US accuses Russian leader of all but breaking international law after Putin says Crimea land grab is 'humanitarian'

Ian Traynor, Europe editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 21.27 GMT   
Link to video: John Kerry voices strong US support for Ukraine during Kiev visit

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama traded accusations over the crisis in Ukraine on Tuesday, with the Russian leader seeking to blame the Americans for the growing international standoff as the US president all but accused Putin of breaking international law.

The barbed exchanges, a sign of the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow, came as Putin delivered his first public remarks on the crisis – ruling out a war days after his forces took control of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, but reserving the right to use force to protect Russian speakers in the east of the country "as a last resort".

Speaking from his country residence outside Moscow, Putin gave a robust performance during which he portrayed Kiev as being in the grip of "terror, extremists and nationalists" rampaging on the streets. Putin described what is broadly seen as a Russian land grab in Crimea as "a humanitarian mission".

Obama and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, responded in apparent disbelief after Putin maintained there were no Russian forces occupying Crimea. "He really denied there were troops in Crimea?" said Kerry after arriving in Kiev, where he offered $1bn in loan guarantees to the new Ukraine government.

Kerry accused the Kremlin of "hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation, and provocations".

Obama said: "There have been reports that Putin is pausing and reflecting on what's happened. There is a strong belief that Russian action is violating international law. Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers, but I don't think that is fooling anyone."

On the ground in Crimea tensions remained high, with Russian forces firing warning shots at unarmed Ukrainian soldiers marching on an airfield.

Following several days of drama that saw Ukraine's president toppled, a new government and interim head of state installed, and a Russian military seizure of Crimea, Putin said Moscow did not want to annex the territory.

"Regarding the deployment of troops, the use of armed forces. So far, there is no need for it, but the possibility remains," he said. "What can serve as a reason to use the armed forces? Such a measure would certainly be the very last resort."

But the Americans accused Putin of preparing to expand his control over the country. "It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," said Kerry.

The Americans are pushing for economic sanctions against the Kremlin elite and an EU emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday is also likely to decide on sanctions unless the Russians "de-escalate".

It may be that the language employed by Putin will be taken as de-escalation and reduce the pressure for punitive action against Russia – global markets rose in response to tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict.

Putin also warned that sanctions were a two-way street and that if Europe decided on that path, there would be a heavy cost to pay. EU trade with Russia is substantial, especially with Germany, more than 10 times the level of US-Russia trade, making it a lot less painful for Washington to decide on sanctions without fear of reprisals.

"We are not going to go to war with the Ukrainian people. But there is the Ukrainian army," Putin stated. "If we make this decision, we will make it for the people of Ukraine … Ukraine is not only our closest neighbour. It is our fraternal neighbour. Our armed forces are brothers in arms, friends. They know each other personally. I'm sure Ukrainian and Russian military will not be on different sides of the barricades but on the same side."

The Russian leader strongly denounced the new administration in Kiev. He said he would refuse to recognize Ukrainian elections scheduled for the end of May. The acting president and government were illegitimate and Kiev was in the hands of "armed terrorists", of "nationalists and extremists".

"Our major concern is the … nationalists and radical extremists that are rampant on the streets of Kiev," said Putin.

The deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has fled to Russia leaving behind a lavish lifestyle in Kiev, remained the legitimate head of state, Putin insisted, although he also pronounced Yanukovych politically dead.

"There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev, in Ukraine in general. This was an anti-constitutional coup and the armed seizure of power," he said.

A week after Yanukovych's riot police killed dozens in Kiev and took fleeting control of a city centre square occupied since November by protesters, Putin retained the option of greater intervention on the basis of an alleged request from the toppled Yanukovych for Russian help. He contrasted that position with western behaviour.

"Our position is very different. Our position is completely legitimate. If we use force … we have received a request from a legitimate president. Also we have hisorical and cultural ties with those people. And this is a humanitarian mission. It's not our goal to conquer somebody."
Unarmed Ukrainian troops bearing their regiment and the Ukrainian flags march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea in Lubimovka, Ukraine. Ukrainian troops march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There were also signs of new negotiations on the crisis. Arseniy Yatseniuk, the acting Ukrainian prime minister, said his government was in touch with Russian ministers with a view to holding "consultations".

Kerry called for negotiations, while it appeared that international observers and mediators would be dispatched by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which both Russia and Ukraine are members.

"I've spoken as directly to President Putin today as I can," said Kerry. "To invite him to engage in a legitimate and appropriate dialogue, particularly with the current government of Ukraine."

Obama said: "There is a suggestion that Russia's actions have been clever, but this has not been a sign of strength, rather a sign that countries near Russia have deep concerns about this kind of meddling and if anything it will push them further away from Russia."

There are said to be 16,000 Russian troops securing control of Crimea, where they enjoy broad backing from the majority ethnic-Russian population.

Putin said there were no Russian forces, merely local self-defence units. "There are many military uniforms. Go into any local shop and you can find one," he said. Putin also said he was continuing preparations to host a summit of the G8 countries in Sochi in June. All the other countries have frozen their preparations. While Washington has said Russia could be kicked out of the G8, Berlin is resisting such moves.

Putin was dismissive of the threats. "If the leaders don't want to come, fair enough," he said.


Russia sells off record $11.3 billion in foreign currency to prop up ruble

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 7:01 EST

Russia sold a record $11.3 billion in foreign currency to support the ruble on March 3, the so called “Black Monday” when the ruble came under unprecedented pressure due to concerns about conflict in Ukraine, central bank data showed on Wednesday.

The Russian central bank sold foreign currency to buy rubles and prevent the Russian currency from falling further, after the market reacted with panic to parliamentary approval for President Vladimir Putin’s request to allow military action in Ukraine.

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« Last Edit: Mar 05, 2014, 06:35 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #12271 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:17 AM »

03/04/2014 02:20 PM

EU vs. Moscow: Russia Tries to Woo Back Moldova

By Christian Neef

As Moldova prepares to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, Russia is stepping up attempts to keep the country in its fold. It has found some willing helpers in the country.

If Mihail Formuzal had his way, the revolution in Kiev never would have happened. Then, Moldova would choose Russia instead of Europe, and the planned Association Agreement with the EU would already be history. The 54-year-old Formuzal is president of the autonomous Gagauzia region in Moldova. In early February he carried out a referendum by polling the approximately 155,000 members of the Gagauz Orthodox Christian minority here.

He wanted to know if they'd rather be part of the Russia-led Customs Union or work with the European Union. The result: 98.5 percent of the participants voted for Russia -- 68,000 votes to 1,900.

In Moldova, the Gagauz are considered Moscow's fifth column. "We aren't against the EU, we're pragmatic," says Formuzal, a former Soviet artillery major, as he sits in an office on Lenin Street with a massive granite Lenin perched in front of his window. "My son is studying in Giessen, in Germany; Europe's biggest shoe salesman, Heinrich Deichmann, is Gagauzia's greatest patron," he says. "We like all European values, except your gay marriage."

During Kiev's weekend of revolution he sent a message of solidarity to Ukraine -- not to the demonstrators but to one of Viktor Yanukovych's last acolytes. He commended the man, a governor in the northwest of Ukraine, for not giving in to the opposition, and offered him his support. Moldova, he wrote, could take in injured police officers from the Berkut special forces unit and treat them. These were the men who had purposely fired on demonstrators in Kiev, the henchmen of the old regime.

When the situation fell apart, Yanukovych disappeared and his followers stepped down or joined the opposition, while Russia had to stand on the sidelines.

Russia's Moldovan Agenda

To ensure that such a scenario never happens again, Moscow is now in the process of infiltrating the last pro-European republics in its sphere of influence. Moldova is especially important to the Russians: a country, smaller than the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalia, almost entirely surrounded by Ukraine except for a border it shares with Romania. The republic, which left the Soviet Union in 1991, only has three million inhabitants.

Until 2009, the communists led the country -- but now a pro-European coalition is in power. Moldova long ago agreed on the text of an Association Agreement with the EU and it is supposed to be signed in August. This makes Moldova and Georgia the only ones of the six original former Soviet republics risking rapprochement with Europe.

But will it actually happen? The Kremlin is currently expending significant effort to loosen Europe's grasp on Moldova -- and using the Gagauz to do so. The Gagauz capital, Comrat, is a sleepy town in the south Moldavian steppe where the only language spoken aside from Gagauz is Russian and people watch Moscow's Channel One.

The rest of Moldova has also changed its attitude towards Europe -- only 44 percent of them are still in favor of integration into the EU, while, at the same time, the number of people in favor of entering the Customs Union with Russia has grown from 30 to 40 percent. Formuzal claims the Moldovan government has erected an "African democracy" in the country -- claiming that it has tightened its control over ministries, courts and public prosecutors' offices and is handing out money to party members and relatives, while the Gagauz minority receives nothing.

"We want our own state," he says. "We want the same status as the Republic of Transnistria." That strip of land, which separated from Moldova in 1992 in a civil war, has been kept alive by Russia ever since.

Moscow's Dirty Tactics

One floor below Formuzal, Dmitry Konstantinov, the 61-year-old head of the 35-person Gagauz parliament, sits and complains about the European Union. The EU, he claims, watched as the Ukrainian opposition chased the president out of office with Molotov cocktails, and didn't do a thing. And by the way, he says, the only things the EU has brought to new members like Hungary or Bulgaria are debts and company closures. Even he, who owns 3,000 hectares of wine and wheat, is unable to sell his wares in Europe.

So who financed the referendum in Gagauzia? It cost one million Lei, or about €53,000 ($73,000), says Konstantinov, adding that the money was the result of donations collected from among the locals. He also says the Russian Embassy in the Moldovan capital Chisinau had promised to put together a package for Gagauzia: Russia wants to deliver cheaper gas and promote the import of Moldovan wine.

In Chisinau, people say Russia paved the way for the Gagauzia referendum. Legally, the poll has no effect, it was a symbolic act, but now other Russia-friendly parts of Moldova are considering referendums of their own.

"The people don't feel like there's been any improvement in their lives, every third Moldovan works outside of the country, most of them in Russia," says Victor Chirila, a former advisor to the Liberal Democratic Prime Minister Vladimir Filat, who had to resign in March of last year after various scandals.

"Sixty percent of Moldovans believe things were better in the Soviet era," says Chirila. "And now a resurgent Russia is offering them an alternative with their Customs Union and deceiving them into believing that they can return into the lap of the former empire. They don't understand what the EU represents."

It's possible that the Communists will return to power in this fall's parliamentary elections. Even if the current government signs the EU Association Agreement in August, the new cabinet could immediately annul it.

EU Changes Tactics

That's exactly what Russia is working towards. For weeks, the Russians have been making Moldovan wines more difficult to import. There have been attacks by insiders on Moldovan banks to redirect money to Russia, as well as threats that the status of Moldovan guest workers in Russia -- on whose money many in Moldova depend -- will be re-evaluated. And there have been repeated provocations on the border between Transnistria and the rest of the country.

According to Chirila, Russia subsidizes the neighboring republic of Transnistria "with $30 million a year." Retirees receive a $10 boost to their pension from Russia, and public officials also receive additional payments.

Now there are rumors, says Chirila, that Russia is in the process of securing the acquiescence of lawmakers in the Moldovan parliament. The governing coalition is weak, with but a three-seat majority. Chirila says that Russian approaches to lawmakers in Chisinau are made via a shady Moldovan millionaire and banker.

Originally, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, had planned to travel to Chisinau and then to Georgia on Monday in order to lend their support to EU supporters in the former Soviet Republic. They cancelled their visit at the last minute to take part in consultations pertaining to the ongoing Crimea crisis. But Moldova has still received some good news from Brussels recently. On Feb. 28, European Parliament lifted the visa requirement for Moldovans traveling in Europe, a regulation which could go into effect as early as May.

This time, the EU is aware of the danger. Brussels, says Graham Watson, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Moldova, knows that Russia is trying to buy part of the Republic of Moldova in order to stop European integration. Moscow, he adds, wants to prevent the Ukrainian model from spawning imitators in the neighboring republic.

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« Reply #12272 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:19 AM »

Report reveals 'extensive' violence against women in EU

One in three women report physical or sexual abuse since age of 15, with largest number of victims in Denmark

Jane Martinson   
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 March 2014      

Violence against women is "an extensive human rights abuse" across Europe with one in three women reporting some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15 and 8% suffering abuse in the last 12 months, according to the largest survey of its kind on the issue, published on Wednesday.

The survey, based on interviews with 42,000 women across 28 EU member states, found extensive abuse across the continent, which typically goes unreported and undetected by the authorities.

Morten Kjaerum, director of FRA, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, which was responsible for the survey, said: "Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse that the EU cannot afford to overlook."

The FRA study provides ample evidence of the size of the problem, as well as suggestions on how to fix it. In a foreword to the report, Kjaerum calls for all member states to sign and ratify the Council of Europe Istanbul convention, which demands more protection for women, as well as action from private and public organisations. "Action to combat violence against women needs to come from different quarters – employers, health professionals and internet service providers."

The report ranks countries in order depending on the responses to the survey. In three countries often praised for their gender equality, for example, high numbers of women report suffering violence since the age of 15: in Denmark 52%, Finland 47%, and Sweden 46% of women say they have suffered physical or sexual violence.

The UK reports the joint fifth highest incidence of physical and sexual violence (44%), whereas women in Poland report the lowest – 19%. However, campaigners to end violence against women advised caution in reporting country-wide differences, given different levels of awareness of what constitutes abuse.

Calling for a concerted international effort to combat such high levels of violence, Kjaerum writes: "With the publication of the survey and the necessary follow-up measures by politicians, women who have been victims of violence can be encouraged to speak up. This is crucial in those countries, and among certain groups, where it is not yet widespread to openly talk about personal experiences of violence, where reporting of incidents to the authorities is low, and where violence against women is not addressed as a mainstream policy issue."

Among the findings, to be unveiled in Brussels on Wednesday, are:

• One in 10 women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 15, while one in 20 has been raped.

• One in 10 women have been stalked by a previous partner.

• Most violence is carried out by a current or former partner, with 22% of women in relationships reporting partner abuse.

• About one third (31%) who report being raped by a partner have been repeatedly raped, which the report defines as six or more times.

• Violence against women is one of the least reported crimes. Only 14% of women reported their most serious incident of partner violence to the police, while a similar percentage (13%) reported their most serious incident of non-partner violence.

• Just over one in 10 women experienced some form of sexual violence by an adult before they were 15.

Holly Dustin, director of End Violence Against Women, said the survey highlighted the urgent need for the UK to ratify the Istanbul convention. "We need to ensure that women are supported and protected."

The report's authors also urge special preventive and awareness programmes for young women who are "particularly vulnerable to victimisation" as well as a focus on men, who "need to be positively engaged in initiations that confront how some men use violence against women".

The report echoes a smaller study carried out last year by the World Health Organisation, which found that physical or sexual violence is a public health problem that affects more than one third of all women globally.

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« Reply #12273 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:29 AM »

Hague spells out Britain's inaction plan for a crisis far, far away

Foreign secretary's display of statesmanship explained exactly what Britain was not going to do about Crimea

John Crace   
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 18.26 GMT   

Ever since William Hague confidently announced that Muammar Gaddafi was to be found in Venezuela, it's been hard to have much faith in his sense of geography. Which is a drawback when you are foreign secretary. Or maybe not. On Tuesday he came to the Commons to deliver a statement on the crisis in Ukraine, whose subtext was that its exact whereabouts was not terribly important as no Brits would ever be going there in the near future.

"We are not planning another Crimean war," he said firmly. Mmm, no. But it rather looks as if Russia might be. Or is already having a little one. Either way, it will be having one without us.

The irony is that it is the Ukraine's precise location that is driving the government's current activity. Or rather, inactivity. Hague might not know exactly where Ukraine is but he does know it is a long, long way away from Britain and right next door to Russia. Both of which makes it a no-brainer for the foreign secretary to do nothing much. Just as he and previous foreign secretaries have done with other ongoing disputes in South Ossetia and Georgia.

But these crises require great displays of statesmanship by the government and opposition. Not to make President Putin think twice about upsetting such a powerful country as Britain, but to reassure themselves that they aren't quite as impotent as they suspect, deep down, they really are.

Hague sounded stern and determined as he deplored Russia's actions. As Douglas Alexander, his opposite number, would have been saying precisely the same thing had their positions been reversed, his contribution was limited to trying to embarrass Hague that the Tories' inaction plan had accidentally been leaked in a photograph the day before.

Hague batted this one away. "I want to make it absolutely clear that anything that is written in one document that is being carried by one official is not necessarily any guide to the decisions that will be made by Her Majesty's government. Our options remain very much open on this subject."

Except the only options the government was presently considering were the same ones as before: not sending government representatives to the Paralympics and slowing down visa applications for Russians. Hague did add there could be some more options on Thursday after the EU summit. He might even cancel his trip to see the Bolshoi Ballet. Or something. Putin must be terrified.

But Hague isn't yet ready to abandon Ukraine entirely. Or is he? In answer to a question from Dennis Skinner about whether the crisis would be costing the British taxpayer, Hague replied: "I announced to the Ukrainian government yesterday that we will assist them with know-how … debt management, financial management." You'd have thought the last thing Ukraine needed was the help of Bob Diamond and Fred the Shred. But maybe desperate times call for desperate measures.

Sir Peter Tapsell, the only MP who was alive during the first Crimean war, attempted to put the current crisis in a historical perspective. "Every Russian knows that the capture of Crimea and Sevastopol was the greatest achievement of Catherine the Great – that is why she is called 'Great' – and Potemkin," he said.

And he should know; she told him in person. Unfortunately, he then rather spoilt the effect by insisting: "If the already over-enlarged European Union is going to continue to try to extend its borders towards Mongolia, we will indeed finish up with a third world war." His history may be good, but his geography is as poor as the foreign secretary's.

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« Reply #12274 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:38 AM »

Turkey PM 'Ready to Quit' if Party Loses Local Polls

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 11:55

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday he was ready to step down if his ruling party, in power since 2002, loses key local elections later this month.

"I am ready to quit politics unless my party emerges winner in the elections" scheduled for March 30, said Erdogan, who is battling a damaging corruption investigation which poses the greatest challenge yet to his 11 years in power.

The graft scandal broke last December with the detention of dozens of Erdogan allies on allegations of bribery, money laundering, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran.

Erdogan has accused associates of ally-turned-opponent Fethullah Gulen, an influential Muslim cleric based in the United States, of concocting the probe.

But the scandal -- and his hardline response to it -- have done unprecedented damage to the premier's image at home and abroad.

Opinion polls show the scandal is hurting Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which weathered mass street protests last summer.

A January survey by the Metropoll research company showed support for the AKP at 36.3 percent, far below the 50 percent it garnered in 2011's parliamentary elections.

The Turkish strongman remained defiant, saying Wednesday the number of supporters filling election rallies suggested a backlash in his favour.

But Erdogan has come under increased pressure since last week, when audio tapes leaked online put him at the heart of the corruption allegations.

The recordings were purportedly of Erdogan and his son Bilal discussing how to hide large sums of money.

Erdogan denounced them as fakes, part of a "vile attack" by his political rivals ahead of this year's elections.

But the tapes prompted opposition calls for the beleaguered government's resignation.

And thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country in protest, with police on occasion firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.

The embattled premier has responded by sacking or reassigning hundreds of police and prosecutors believed to be linked to the Gulen movement, and tightened his grip over Internet and the judiciary.

Gulen himself denies any involvement in the scandal.

In the latest blow to so-called Gulenists, the Turkish parliament, where Erdogan's AKP has comfortable majority, passed a law last Friday to shut down a network of private preparatory schools most of which are run by the movement.

In remarks published in local media Wednesday, he vowed to take action against the Gulen group after the elections.

"We will promptly take several measures after the March 30 local elections," he said, without elaborating.

At its February meeting, Turkey's National Security discussed "organisations and structures" that threatened the country's national security interests.

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« Reply #12275 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:39 AM »

Iran FM Says Pinning Hopes on Nuclear Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 13:08

Iran is pinning its hopes on the success of talks with the West about its nuclear program but has no plans to abandon a controversial reactor, its foreign minister said Wednesday.

Mohammad Javad Zarif made the comments as he ended an official visit to Tokyo which included talks with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"We have based all of our calculations on the success of these negotiations," Zarif told reporters.

"I think that's a better option, for the negotiations to succeed. It's a better option for everybody."

Under a November interim deal, Iran agreed to roll back or freeze some nuclear activities for six months in exchange for modest sanctions relief and a promise by Western powers not to impose new restrictions on its hard-hit economy.

The West and Israel have long suspected Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability alongside its civilian program, something Tehran denies.

Zarif said Iran would not shutter the unfinished Arak heavy water reactor, a concern to the West because Tehran could extract weapons-grade plutonium from its spent fuel if it also builds a reprocessing facility.

This would give it a second route to a nuclear bomb.

Zarif said Arak was crucial for peaceful scientific pursuits, and insisted that "we are not going to close it".

"We believe the solution is at hand," he told a joint press conference with Kishida. "I am sure if the other sides comes with the same posture we will have a satisfactory conclusion within a short period of time."

He praised Japan's expertise in the nuclear field and said more investment in Iran's atomic sector could serve as "a mutual confidence-building operation".

"Japan can also be on the ground in Iran and see for itself that Iran's program is nothing but peaceful," he added.

Japan has been reducing Iranian oil imports despite energy shortfalls in the wake of the tsunami and nuclear incident three years ago, which forced Tokyo to turn to pricey fossil-fuel options to plug the energy gap.

Kishida said he had promised Japan's help in trying to broker a deal between Tehran and world powers.

"I told the foreign minister that Japan, along with the international community, will actively engage in the process towards the final agreement," he told reporters.

"The comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear issue is extremely important, not only for the Middle East, but also for the peace and stability of the world."

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« Reply #12276 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:40 AM »

Sources: Pakistan to Resume Taliban Peace Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
 05 March 2014, 10:23

Negotiators for the Pakistani government and the country's main Taliban faction are to meet Wednesday to restart peace talks that stalled more than a fortnight ago, sources said.

The meeting in the northwestern town of Akora Khattak comes after the Taliban announced a month-long ceasefire at the weekend, despite a major attack in Islamabad on Monday claimed by a splinter group that killed 11 people.

More than 110 people have been killed in militant attacks since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in late January, leading some observers to question the dialogue strategy.

The TTP distanced itself from Monday's attack, the deadliest in the Pakistani capital since a huge truck bomb hit the city's Marriott Hotel in 2008.

An official close to the government delegation told Agence France Presse they had arrived for the meeting in Akora Khattak, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Peshawar, the main city of northwest Pakistan.

"The government committee will ask about the recent attacks, particularly the one in Islamabad, and they will also talk about how to make the ceasefire effective," the official said.

A source close to the Taliban negotiating team, which is led by radical cleric Sami-ul-Haq, confirmed the government side had reached the town.

Talks began last month but broke down after militants killed 23 kidnapped soldiers.

The military responded with a series of air strikes in the tribal areas that killed more than 100 insurgents, according to security officials.

The Taliban's ceasefire announcement on Saturday was met with skepticism by analysts, who said it may have been a tactic to allow them to regroup after they had suffered heavy losses in air strikes.

The government has struck peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban several times in the past but they have failed to yield lasting results.

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« Reply #12277 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:44 AM »

India Names Date for Modi-Gandhi Election Battle

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 08:38

India, the world's largest democracy, announced Wednesday it would stage a five-week election from April 7, a contest expected to bring Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to power on a platform of economic revival.

The head of the election commission said voting would be held in nine phases until May 12 and counting would begin four days later on May 16.

"It is expected counting will be over in a single day," Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath told a press conference.

Some 814 million people will be entitled to vote, 100 million more than in the last polls in 2009. A total of 930,000 polling stations will be set up, from the Himalayas in the north to India's tropical southern tip.

"The commission appeals to all stakeholders, and in particular the political parties and candidates, to uphold the fairness (and) democratic traditions by maintaining high standards of political discourse and fair play in the course of the campaign," Sampath said.

The contest will pit Modi, son of a tea-stall seller, against Rahul Gandhi, the Harvard and Cambridge-educated scion of India's biggest political dynasty which has dominated post-independence politics.

After two terms of coalition government led by the leftist Congress party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi is widely forecast to emerge as the largest party.

Modi, leader of the western state of Gujarat since 2001, is seen as a pro-business reformer but his Hindu nationalism and links to anti-Muslim riots worry religious minorities and defenders of India's officially secular character.

The 63-year-old, who rose through grassroots Hindu organizations, is publicly pitching a message of jobs and development to a country struggling with decade-low economic growth and still endemic poverty.

His main opponent in the Congress is the relatively untested Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers who is leading the party into a national election for the first time.

Opinion polls show Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat when anti-Muslim riots left more than 1,000 dead in 2002, holds a large advantage over his bitter rival.

But whoever emerges as the ultimate victor -- and India's opinion polls are notoriously unreliable -- will almost certainly have to stitch together a coalition comprising smaller regional parties.

No single party has won a parliamentary majority since 1989 and the electorate has fractured in successive decades, giving often populist regional leaders immense power at the national level.

This would likely limit any "Hindutva" or Hindu nationalist agenda which Modi attempts to put forward and could crimp his development plans.

A new movement with national ambitions, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party led by former tax inspector Arvind Kejriwal, will also be an unpredictable element in this year's polls.

Just over a year since its formation, the party won enough seats in December's Delhi state elections to take power in what was seen as a political earthquake in the graft-plagued nation.

The Congress party under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and its president Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born mother of Rahul, has seen its fortunes plummet since 2009 when it won a second term in office.

Dogged by corruption scandals and sapped by slow economic growth and high inflation, its focus on new welfare programs and social spending on the rural poor is unlikely to persuade voters to return it to power.

The 81-year-old Singh, one of India's longest-serving prime ministers, will leave office with his formerly stellar reputation based on his work as a reforming finance minister in the 1990s tarnished.

"Although it was in power for two full terms, the UPA's (coalition's) kitty of successes remains half-empty," the Hindustan Times daily said in an editorial on Wednesday.

"Though allegations of corruption dogged the government down, it waited till the last moment to pass key anti-corruption bills, and failed."

Rahul Gandhi's leadership credentials are also under immense scrutiny as the media-shy 43-year-old -- who has never held a ministerial post -- steps up as the new leader of India's top political dynasty.

The next government will inherit formidable challenges, with an economy growing at less than 5.0 percent and the South Asian region entering a crucial period as NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan later this year.

Afghanistan will hold presidential elections two days before the start of voting in India.

On foreign policy, a Modi-led government would be expected to take a more hardline stance on neighboring Pakistan -- the BJP has criticized attempts by Singh at peace talks -- while Modi recently warned China over its "expansionist mindset".

Modi was refused a U.S. visa in 2005 under a domestic law that bars entry to any foreign official seen as responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom".

European governments also boycotted Modi but moved last year to restore ties as opinion polls showed him as the most popular prime ministerial candidate.

Modi has denied any wrongdoing over the riots but has been dogged by suggestions he did too little to control the mayhem, which saw families and children burned to death, stabbed and lynched in an orgy of violence


Feminism for goddesses: does kumari worship empower girls?

Could the reverence given to Hindu goddesses translate into a higher status for India's women or does it hold them back?

Monica Sarkar
Guardian Professional, Wednesday 5 March 2014 11.36 GMT      

In a yearly festival celebrating goddess Gangamma in the south Indian city of Tirupati, men assume the form of women. Lasting a week, the town is filled with men wearing saris, mirroring the goddess' semblance. The women intensify their domestic duties, sharing the deity's feminine, creative power, known in Hinduism as 'shakti.'

While goddess worship is meaningful in areas of this predominantly Hindu country, is it a practice that empowers girls?

In September 2013, Indian advertising agency Taproot produced a 'Abused Goddesses' campaign, recreating Hindu goddesses with black eyes and bruised faces. Although its impact was not measured, the posters highlighted the contrast between deity worship and the treatment of girls and women in modern-day India, where a high female infanticide rate exists and 244,270 incidents of crimes against women were reported in 2012.

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, professor of religion and author of 'When the World Becomes Female,' which details the Gangamma festival, explains the connection: "Where do we get the idea that because there are goddesses, women will have higher status? It's a big assumption about the relationship between human and divine worlds."

An ancient tradition in India and Nepal enforces that relationship and carefully selects pre-pubescent girls as incarnations of a goddess. In India, the girl, or 'Kumari', is usually worshipped for a day. But in Nepal, where goddess worship is also prevalent, she is isolated from society, taking her daily seat at the temple to be worshipped by locals as well as royalty. Once she reaches puberty, another chosen girl replaces her.

Chanira Bajracharya, a 19-year-old Nepalese student, was a Kumari of Patan, a city within Kathmandu Valley. Fulfilling the role from age five to 15, she says she still looks up to the goddess: "I feel I'm blessed and a lot of my success comes from those blessings." She says the tradition encourages respect for women in a male-dominated society.

Bajracharya thinks the controversial tradition should continue, but adds Kumaris should be properly educated and guided "so they don't feel misplaced when they go out into the real world."

However, some NGOs find that religion is used to excuse or veil negative cultural norms. The age-old Indian devadasi practice dedicates young girls to the goddess Yellamma, who are then unable to marry and forced into prostitution. Because of its religious connotations, those who participate see it as a privilege.

Leila Passah was a primary researcher in a 1981 study conducted by the NGO Joint Women's Programme, which highlighted the tradition in certain districts bordering the states of Karnataka and Maharastra. Passah says the findings drew the attention of the Indian government and led to its ban in 1982.

Although this reduced its prevalence, she says it continues to operate in villages. "Unfortunately, we know that laws alone cannot change practices that have been existing since time immemorial, especially if it involves a religious belief." Therefore, NGOs continue to protect victims and pressurise lawmakers to take further action.

Pathfinder International recognises the importance of engaging with the wider community, including opening dialogues with religious leaders from different faiths as well as Hinduism. Encouraging them to advocate projects in their communities, such as Prachar which focuses on girls' reproductive health and empowerment in Haryana, they have found a shift in negative perceptions and reductions in early marriages and pregnancies.

Binod Singh, project manager, says: "According to Hindu mythology, girls are treated like goddesses, but in practical life they are deprived from many opportunities and are victims of deep rooted discrimination. It is certainly an important and positive approach to address religious beliefs for behaviour changes in terms of girls' empowerment and delaying marriage."

More and more young women feel that goddesses are not fit to serve their modern purposes. Usha Vishwakarma, 25, leads a teenage martial arts girls group called Red Brigade in Lucknow, who bravely patrol the streets and ward off men seen to be harassing women.

"Goddesses are worshipped merely as a ritual but in reality, women are generally never seen as their earthly representations," she says. "It is not inspiration or motivation that we look for. Sheer frustration from being ill-treated by men and unsympathetic responses from family drive us to rebel and make conditions better for ourselves."

Madhu Khanna, a Tantric scholar and professor of religious studies in New Delhi, argues for feminist reinterpretations of outdated fables for girls. Modern writers, including herself and activist and classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai, have presented their adaptations in front of diverse, receptive audiences.

But since a single approach cannot apply to all in a vast country like India, some organisations choose to adopt secularist methods.

Anne Munger, marketing and communications associate for Voice 4 Girls, which runs activity-based camps, says: "Because we serve a diverse range of girls from all backgrounds, our camps do not touch on religion, and religion does not often come up in conversations with our campers. We teach them about prominent women in society, like Malala Yousafzai, Kiran Bedi, Aung San Suu Kyi; real women they can aspire to emulate. And community heroes, such as parents, friends and teachers."

Passah advocates secularism: "Religion is personal and private [and] goddess worship does not interfere with work related to rights. It becomes an issue to be addressed only if it discriminates or violates women's rights."

A multitude of gods and goddesses are worshipped in India, along with their regional variations, and though the praise of deity worship can be empowering, it can also be used to oppress. Ultimately, it is engaging with communities that will discourage outdated, patriarchal practices that fool girls into believing that they are not worthy of the same reverence bestowed on a goddess.

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« Reply #12278 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:47 AM »

Pentagon: North Korea Poses 'Growing' Threat to U.S.

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 07:15

North Korea poses a mounting threat to the United States due to its pursuit of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, the Pentagon said Tuesday in its latest strategy document.

Describing the regime in Pyongyang as "closed and authoritarian," the Defense Department said the U.S. military would maintain a major presence in the region and keep up investments in missile defense.

The North represents "a significant threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia and is a growing, direct threat to the United States," said the Quadrennial Defense Review, an update of the military's global strategic outlook.

U.S. forces would continue to collaborate closely with South Korea's military "to deter and defend against North Korean provocations," it said.

The release of the Pentagon's strategic review came as North Korea flexed its military might three times over the past week, firing short-range Scud missiles and rockets into the sea. The test launches were timed to coincide with joint U.S.-South Korean drills that Pyongyang opposes.

The strategy document said the United States will seek to stay ahead of the threat of ballistic missile arsenals in Iran and North Korea, noting plans to bolster the number of ground-based interceptors on U.S. soil from 30 to 44 while investing in better sensors.

The U.S. administration also is deploying a second powerful surveillance radar in Japan to provide early warning of any missile launched by North Korea, it said.

North Korea has pressed ahead with its missile program but experts have voiced skepticism over its claims to have a working inter-continental ballistic missile.

To promote "stability" in the region, U.S. forces will keep up "a robust footprint in Northeast Asia while enhancing our presence in Oceania and Southeast Asia," the review said.

Although Washington's much-touted strategic "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region has been criticized as more hype than substance, senior Pentagon officials insisted the review and a new budget proposal released Tuesday showed a commitment to the shift.

US officials cited ship building plans, deployments of marines to Australia and an expansion of joint military training and drills.

"We will continue our contributions to the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, seeking to preserve peace and stability in a region that is increasingly central to US political, economic, and security interests," the review said.

At the same time, the U.S. military would retain an "enduring" presence in the Middle East and the Gulf, where some 35,000 troops are stationed, while also keeping up ties to "stalwart" allies in Europe.

The document was drafted before the current crisis erupted in Ukraine, with pro-Russian forces taking de facto control over the Crimean peninsula.


North Korean Military Defends Missile Tests

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 10:20

North Korea Wednesday defended a recent series of missile and rocket tests and hit back at "vicious" criticism of the launches by Seoul and Washington.

The tests were largely seen as a calculated display of military muscle-flexing to reflect the North's anger over ongoing South Korea-U.S. military drills.

In a statement carried by the North's official KCNA news agency, a Korean People's Army (KPA) spokesman said the tests -- which violated U.N. sanctions banning any ballistic missile test by Pyongyang -- were "ordinary military practice".

The North fired half a dozen short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast over the past week, followed by a volley of rockets from multiple launchers on Tuesday.

South Korea called the launches a "reckless provocation" while Washington urged Pyongyang to halt the tests immediately, saying they risked inflaming regional tensions.

The KPA spokesman said all the missiles and rockets -- tested at ranges of between 55 kilometers (33 miles) and 500 kilometers -- had followed their planned trajectories "without the slightest error."

Stressing that the tests did not have the "slightest impact" on regional peace or stability, the spokesman hit back at U.S. and South Korean criticism.

"The U.S. and its followers that harbor hostility towards our republic... are viciously attacking us from the very moment our rockets soared towards the sky," he said.

The "real provocations", he added, were the joint military drills being held in South Korea that began on February 24.

North Korea routinely condemns the annual South-U.S. exercises as rehearsals for invasion.

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« Reply #12279 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:49 AM »

China targets 7.5% growth and declares war on pollution

Leadership at National People’s Congress signals reform after years of booming but socially costly development

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Wednesday 5 March 2014 03.43 GMT      

China has signalled its commitment to overhauling an unsustainable economy, promising to prioritise reforms, declare war on pollution and maintain its 7.5% growth target.

Premier Li Keqiang also vowed to “break mental shackles and vested interests” in pursuit of economic reforms as he delivered the annual government work report.

Li was speaking at the opening of the annual session of China’s largely rubberstamp parliament. The almost 3,000 delegates at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People observed a minute’s silence for victims of Saturday’s terrorist attack in Kunming as the meeting began.

China’s new generation of leaders under Xi Jinping had already set out pledges of ambitious reform. Years of breakneck development, fuelled by investment and exports, lifted millions out of poverty but led to massive social and environmental problems.

Li’s report – his first as premier – and other documents released on Wednesday reiterate the leadership’s commitment to change. But it is treading cautiously in an uncertain economic environment, with increasing concern about debt-ridden local governments. The leadership has left itself the space to loosen policy if it believes growth is slowing too sharply.

“Local governments should properly set their own growth rates in line with their actual conditions, and must not seek faster growth or compete with each other to have the highest growth rate,” Li said.

Promising to launch “a war on pollution”, he warned: “Smog is affecting larger parts of China and environmental pollution has become a major problem, which is nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”

On Tuesday a senior official said China’s smog problem could be solved within 30 years.

China’s top economic planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said the government would target 17.5% growth in fixed-asset investment this year, the slowest rate for at least a decade. Last year it expanded by 19.6% when the target was 18%.

The country will raise its military budget by 12.2% to 808.23bn yuan (£79bn/$131bn) – the biggest annual increase since 2011 but in line with a decade or more of mostly double-digit rises. Independent experts argue the true level of military spending is substantially higher, though still dwarfed by that of the United States.

Tensions in the region have risen sharply in the last year, particularly in the East China Sea, where both China and Japan claim a group of islets known as the Diaoyu or Senkaku.

The government did not publish the overall domestic security budget, which has risen dramatically in recent years to outstrip military spending. This year’s figure was for central government expenditure only, including the contribution of provincial and regional governments.

“My guess is that it could be because this is a bit sensitive,” Xie Yue, a professor of political science at Tongji University in Shanghai, told Reuters.

“The domestic security budget is a sensitive issue because it’s been growing every year and it’s used exclusively to maintain domestic order, which has raised suspicions this is a police state.”

Xi Jinping has made a high profile anti-corruption campaign the centrepiece of his leadership and the work report pledged to “penalise offenders without mercy”.

The leadership also promoted its message of austerity, saying that central government spending on hospitality dropped by just over a third last year, with local governments cutting expenditure by over a quarter. It promised belt-tightening would continue.

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« Reply #12280 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:51 AM »

World's oldest person celebrates 116th birthday in Japan

Misao Okawa is one of only five people alive – all women – born in the 19th century when Queen Victoria was on the throne

Justin McCurry in Tokyo, Wednesday 5 March 2014 10.54 GMT   
Plenty of sleep and a varied diet are the secrets to a long and healthy life, according to Misao Okawa, the world's oldest person, who celebrated her 116th birthday on Wednesday.

Okawa, who became the world's oldest person last June following the death at 116 of fellow Japanese Jiroemon Kimura, was given a cake with just three candles at her nursing home in Osaka – one for each figure in her age.

Okawa is one of only five people alive – all women – confirmed as having been born in the 19th century.

While she has spoken of her love mackerel sushi, which she eats at least once a month, Okawa isn't particularly fastidious when it comes to food.

"She eats sushi, her favourite, and whatever she likes – beef stew, spaghetti, or sashimi – every day," said an employee of the nursing home where Okawa has lived for the past 18 years.

"She always says the secret to living a long time is to eat a good meal and relax," the employee added. For Okawa, that means an uninterrupted eight hours' sleep every night.

In 1898, the year Okawa was born, the Spanish-American war was in its infancy and Queen Victoria was still on the British throne. Okawa married in 1919 but her husband died in 1931, more than eight decades ago. Their marriage produced three children, two of whom are still alive and in their 90s. Okawa has four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Okawa has dealt with the media attention with incredulity.

When notified that she was in line to become the world's oldest woman last year, she reportedly said: "Have I really lived that long?"

The centenarian, one of about 24 Japanese alive who have passed the 110-year milestone, claims she has never been ill, and quickly recovered after breaking her leg in a fall at the age of 102. "She is in good shape, and is even still gaining weight," the nursing home employee said.

Experts attribute Japan's enviable longevity statistics to its traditional low-fat diet, affordable health care and decent pensions.

Other studies point to the advantages of staying active and spending time with family and friends.

Japan was home to more than 54,000 centenarians last year and its elderly population will soar in the coming decades. About a quarter of its 127 million people are already aged 65 or over, but that is expected to swell to about 40% by the middle of the century.

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« Reply #12281 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:54 AM »

Fighting Breaks Out in South Sudan Capital

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 11:55

Fighting broke out in a military barracks in war-torn South Sudan's capital Juba on Wednesday, witnesses said, although the cause of the clashes was not immediately clear.

An Agence France Presse reporter said the sound of heavy gunfire was heard coming from Giyada barracks near Juba University from 9:30 am (06:30 GMT) and the shooting ended two hours later.

According to independent Tamazuj radio, the fighting started after soldiers argued with a military pay committee. It said several people were dead, but there was no immediate confirmation of the number of casualties and the army could not be reached for comment.

The U.S. embassy in Juba issued a statement telling its nationals to stay indoors.

The conflict in South Sudan started in the capital Juba nearly three months ago amid tensions within the ruling party of President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar, but quickly spread across the country.

Since the initial week of fighting in Juba, the capital has been largely calm. Fighting between the national army and the rebels -- made up of defectors and ethnic militia -- has been centered around the towns of Bor, Malakal and Bentiu further north.

The unrest in South Sudan, the world's newest nation which won independence from Khartoum in 2011, has left thousands dead and has displaced close to 900,000 people, including tens of thousands who have crammed into U.N. bases in fear of ethnic attacks.

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« Reply #12282 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:56 AM »

U.N. Chief in Sierra Leone to Shut Down Peace Mission

by Naharnet Newsdesk
05 March 2014, 06:43

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Sierra Leone Tuesday to oversee the closure of the organisation's peace mission, with the nation in recovery after a brutal civil war.

The secretary-general is due to attend a ceremony on Wednesday to formally shut down the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office (UNIPSIL) which marks the end of 15 years of peace operations in the country.

He was greeted at Freetown's international airport by Foreign Minister Samura Kamara before being flown by helicopter across the bay to the mainland, where he is due to hold talks with President Ernest Bai Koroma.

Between 1991 and 2002, a ruinous conflict raged in the west African nation which became known for child soldiers, the sale of "blood diamonds" and widespread rape and murder, with thousands having their limbs hacked off by rebels.

Now firmly on the path of recovery, Sierra Leone has attracted a slew of investments in its rich resources, although campaigners have voiced fears that its economic boom is coming at the expense of workers' rights.

UNIPSIL took over in 2006 from peacekeeping mission UNAMSIL, which numbered 17,368 at its height.

The new, scaled-down administrative operation was charged with consolidating peace and helping the government prevent fresh conflict and fight corruption, drug trafficking and organized crime.

The office is set to close down and transfer its responsibilities to the U.N. country team by March 31.

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« Reply #12283 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:58 AM »

Egypt army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi indicates he will run for presidency

Sisi's candidacy seen as forgone conclusion as statements and leaks suggest he wants to succeed Mohamed Morsi

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Tuesday 4 March 2014 13.04 GMT      

The head of the Egyptian army has given his clearest sign yet that he will run for Egypt's presidency, a race he is widely expected to win.

Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's candidacy has long been seen as a forgone conclusion, following a series of statements and leaks by officials that strongly suggest he wants to succeed Mohamed Morsi, the man he ousted from office last July, as Egypt's head of state.

But Sisi had never himself made an official statement through state media about whether he definitely intends to run for office. That changed on Tuesday, when the field marshal issued a statement through Egypt's state news agency saying that he could not avoid the will of what he called the "majority" of Egyptians – though he still stopped short of officially declaring his candidacy.

But a senior military officer close to Sisi confirmed that the statement amounted to "an informal announcement". The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Sisi was waiting for new laws governing the presidential elections to be enacted before formally beginning his campaign.

"General Sisi is not a free man like the other candidates," the officer said. "He is a government official, he respects the law, so he's waiting for all the relevant laws to be issued, and all the election procedures to be taken – and only then will there be the official announcement."

Another high-ranking officer said that Sisi had delayed his campaign after getting cold feet about the serious economic challenges any future Egyptian president would have to overcome. "He was looking for any other candidate who might be good – any other good candidate to show up," the second source said. "But if no one else shows up, what should he do? It shouldn't be left to amateurs."

If he runs, Sisi is widely expected to win by a large margin, as he has the backing of all state institutions, virtually all state and private media, and a large section of the population, who laud him for overthrowing Morsi last July following days of mass protests against his rule.

Hundreds of thousands of Sisi supporters filled Cairo's Tahrir Square in January to call for the field marshal to run. Sisi-themed memorabilia – ranging from chocolates to underpants – can be bought across Egypt, while a group of Sisi fans claim to have collected millions of signatures calling for him to lead Egypt.

But public sentiment is hard to quantify in Egypt. More than 98% of participants voted for Egypt's new constitution in January, a sign of strong support for Sisi.

But only 38.6% of those eligible to vote took part. Morsi supporters detest the field marshal for presiding over a campaign of oppression that has seen over a thousand Morsi supporters killed, and thousands more arrested. A Zogby poll from September suggested Egypt was roughly split on Sisi's decision to topple Morsi on 3 July 2013, following days of mass protests.

Leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi is the only Egyptian to have already declared his intention to run for the presidency. Rights lawyer Khaled Ali may also run, while former general Sami Anan has also said he is interested. But how free a campaign any of them can run remains to be seen: three activists were jailed for campaigning against the new constitution in January, and Sabahi's party claimed a handful of their members were arrested for displaying posters of their favoured candidate.

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« Reply #12284 on: Mar 05, 2014, 06:59 AM »

Netanyahu says he is prepared to make 'a historic peace' with Palestinians

Israeli prime minister’s remarks to Aipac’s annual conference in Washington contrasted with chilly White House meeting

Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 March 2014 20.11 GMT      

A Palestinian peace deal could open up economic growth across the Middle East, Binyamin Netanyahu told US supporters on Tuesday, but is still held back by security concerns and a lack of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

In the most upbeat of recent comments during his trip to Washington, the Israeli prime minister highlighted the potential regional benefits of the US-led peace process, even while making it clear he believed significant hurdles remain.

“I am prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian leaders,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington.

“Peace would be good for us and good for the Palestinians but also open up the possibility of achieving better ties with other countries,” he added.

“Many Arab leaders already realise that Israel is not their enemy but peace would turn this into an open and trusting relationship.”

Netanyahu also paid tribute to US peace-making efforts, which have often appeared to irritate Israeli leaders.

“Like New York and Tel Aviv, John Kerry is the Secretary of State who never sleeps,” joked Netanyahu. “I have got the bags under my eyes to prove it.”

The speech to the leading US-Israeli lobby group contrasted with a chilly meeting at the White House on Monday where Israel made clear it felt it was doing all it could.

But Netanyahu re-iterated his calls for a full recognition of Israeli sovereign rights and a lasting security presence.

“It is time the Palestinians stopped denying history,” he said. “They must be prepared to recognise the Jewish state – no excuses, no delays.”

“If this peace is to be more than just a brief interlude, Israel needs security arrangements. We shall always hope for the best, but in the Middle East we have to be prepared for the worst. This position may not win me universal praise but I am charged with protecting the security of my people.”

The trip has left many in Washington fearing that the elusive peace deal is as far away as ever and brought an equally chilly response from Palestinian leaders.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi told The Associated Press that the Israeli leader went to Washington “ready to allocate blame without, in any way, showing any sign of willingness to do the right thing – to stop settlement activities, accept ‘67 borders, accept signed agreements, end illegal actions and move ahead. Instead, he is reiterating his ideological condition of recognition of a Jewish state.”

Netanyahu also repeated his scathing criticism of US and European nuclear negotiations with Iran, contrasting its support for killing in Syria with Israel’s offer of medical facilities to wounded civilians.

“In a Middle East saturated by butcherism and barbarism, Israel is a force for good. The border is a dividing line between decency and depravity,” said Netanyahu.

“The only thing that Iran sends abroad are rockets and terrorists,” he added, calling Iran a “brutal theocracy” that represses millions and whose “soothing words do not square with aggressive actions”.

“The greatest threat to our common security is a nuclear armed Iran,” concluded Netanyahu. “We must prevent them from having the capability to make weapons.”

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