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« Reply #12765 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:17 AM »


Manufacturing surveys show mixed outlook for UK and eurozone

Growth for French and Spanish manufacturers tempered by weaker-than-expected UK data and slowdowns in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria

Katie Allen   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 April 2014 11.34 BST    

There are renewed hopes that the eurozone economy picked up steam as it entered 2014 after a return to growth for France's manufacturers and a surge in activity at Spanish and Italian factories.

The news from a batch of closely watched manufacturing surveys by data specialists Markit was less upbeat for the UK, however, with growth there slowing to an eight-month low and missing forecasts in the City.

For the eurozone as a whole there was a slight loss of momentum for manufacturing last month. The headline measure on the Markit Eurozone Manufacturing PMI eased to a three-month low of 53.0 from 53.2 in February, confirming an earlier "flash" estimate in a shorter release. But over the first quarter of the year, growth was the fastest for almost three years.

"This suggests that eurozone GDP growth in the first quarter has a very decent chance of exceeding the 0.3% quarter-on-quarter rate achieved in the in the fourth quarter of 2013," said Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight.

Within the region there was mixed news at country level. French manufacturing activity expanded for the first time since July 2011 with the activity reading at 52.1 from 49.7 in February. A level above 50 denotes expansion in the surveys, which are based on interviews with purchasing managers.

In Spain, manufacturers enjoyed the strongest growth for four years and in Ireland activity accelerated to a 35-month high. But there were slowdowns in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria.

The report also fanned fears over deflation in the eurozone, as the prices of raw materials and finished goods dropped.

In the UK, the pound fell against the dollar as the PMI report came in much weaker than expected and showed manufacturers' costs falling. Inflation for the goods leaving factories – or output prices – eased to a seven-month low. That news of benign pipeline pressures on consumer price inflation in the UK bolstered expectations the Bank of England will be in no hurry to raise interest rates.

The headline reading on the UK report came in at 55.3, down from 56.2 in February. That still showed expansion but was below even the weakest forecast from a Reuters poll of economists, where the consensus was 56.7.

Rob Dobson, senior economist at the survey compilers Markit, said the headline reading should be taken in the context of the "super- strong, near-record growth rates seen in the second half of last year".

"Growth is merely hot rather than scorching, and the take home messages from the March survey are that the recovery remains solid and continues to drive strong job creation," he said.

The survey signalled manufacturing employment rose for the 11th consecutive month in March but export orders grew at the slowest pace for 10 months.

The thinktank Capital Economics, said that slowdown suggested UK exporters may finally be feeling the effects of the strong pound. But overall the sector would enjoy "healthy" growth of around 3% this year, it predicts.

"With consumers' real incomes set to increase this year, and firms signalling they intend to invest more, demand for manufactured products should build over the course of the year," said the thinktank's economists Paul Hollingsworth and Samuel Tombs.


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« Reply #12766 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:21 AM »


Madrid suffers crisis of confidence as debt and unemployment hit home

Spain's big-spending capital has struggled to draw visitors as tourists prefer the attractions of Barcelona, Ibiza and Bilbao

Cecile Chambraud and Sandrine Morel   
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 1 April 2014 10.01 BST    

The people of Madrid are feeling dejected. Gloom has soured their once irrepressible vitality. It has been like this for more than five years, ever since the property bubble burst. The conservative city council, which has been in power for 25 years, lavishly invested public funds in the hope of making Spain's political capital the economic equal of Barcelona. The subsequent crash prompted a major identity crisis. "Madrid is no longer the lively, joyful city we knew. It's sad and tired," said Marcela San Martin, 46, programme manager at the Sala Sol concert hall which opened in 1979, in the heyday of the Movida Madrileña, the cultural explosion that erupted when Franco's gerontocracy gave way to a new democratic generation.

It all seems very remote 35 years on. "The crisis is not the only factor," says Kike Sarasola, joint founder of the trendy Room Mate hotel chain. "I adore my city but it's stagnant ... It used to be the most amusing place in the world, but now they've banned everything, forcing terraces to close at midnight during the week. It's a bore for visitors. They'd rather go to Bilbao, Málaga, Barcelona or Ibiza."

Holidaymakers have flocked to Spanish beaches, partly due to the Arab spring, but Madrid has lost 400,000 foreign tourists in the past three years. Their number dropped by 7% in 2013, in large part due to the slump in business tourism. Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas airport is a disaster zone. The huge structure, which opened in 2006 at a cost of €6bn ($8.3bn), lost 5.5 million passengers in 2013, down 12% on 2012. Overall traffic has dropped by 23% since 2007, with low-cost operators much preferring Barcelona.

In many respects Madrid seems empty. The crowds after dark and dense traffic have vanished. The number of Metro passengers is down 13% on 2007. Business has fled the city centre and even the cultural life is flagging. The arts were the first to be hit by public-spending cuts and lower living standards. "With the higher rate of VAT on cultural goods [raised from 8% to 21% in 2012] and the drop in audiences, it's increasingly hard to pay artists' fees and expenses," says San Martin. So Madrid misses out on international tours. Last year local punters had to travel to Lisbon to see Prince and Paris for Bob Dylan. This year Lady Gaga is only doing Barcelona.

Spanish artists are suffering too. "Things weren't that easy before the crunch, but we could find venues and get paid properly," says jazz double bassist Baldo Martínez. Now clubs only pay according to the size of the audience and there are fewer concerts. Many people can no longer afford to pay €10 a week to hear live music.

The arts community is extremely critical of the city council, under the leadership of Ana Botella since 2011. "In 2012 an acoustic protection zone was established in the centre. The police are always checking up on concert halls and clubs," San Martin complains. Busking is under strict supervision too.

Even the flagship museums are having a hard time. Public funding for the Reina Sofía museum, home to Picasso's Guernica, has been almost halved since 2011. It has had to resort to all sorts of previously unheard of expedients – finding sponsors among private companies, setting up an international foundation to enlist the support of private collectors abroad, partnerships with other museums – senior curator Manuel Borja-Villel explains.

All that remains of the exuberant boom years, "when arts policy was closely connected to buildings and their content", as Borja-Villel puts it, are spectacular but largely vacant structures. The Conde Duque arts centre, for instance, organises a "kids' town" at Christmas and a summer music festival.

Other projects were never even built. The Cuatro Torres (four towers) are lined up along La Castellana, a big avenue crossing the city. But behind them, concealed by hoardings, is a huge empty space set aside for an international congress centre. It has come to symbolise what has happened here in the past 15 years. "Madrid is the city in Spain which has borrowed the most, accounting for a third of all local authority debt," says Noelia Martínez, a Socialist councillor. "In 2013 service of the debt absorbed 30% of spending."

When Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, justice minister, was elected mayor in 2003 the capital saw things on a grand scale. It spent almost €4bn covering over the ring-road. Extravagant sports facilities, such as the Caja Mágica, went up in the hope of hosting the 2020 Olympics. Last September the city suffered a major setback when the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, Sheldon Adelson, shelved plans to build a European casino complex in the Madrid suburbs, dashing hopes of jobs and tax revenue.

Pedro Corral, the councillor tasked with the arts, sports and tourism, is still upbeat. "We have a great project to become the city where it is easiest to start a new business." The council has cut corporation tax, and is outsourcing services while reining in spending. But though the labour market in Barcelona is recovering, Madrid is still shedding jobs.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde


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« Reply #12767 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:25 AM »

PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ....

Blue Is the Warmest Colour targeted by Russian anti-gay campaigners

Palme d'Or winner about lesbian love affair accused as part of widespread crackdown on 'gay propaganda'

• Russian LGBT film festival wins appeal against 'foreign agent' ruling: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/14/russia-lgbt-film-festival-wins-appeal-foreign-agent
   
Ben Child   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 April 2014 08.39 BST   
   
Blue is the Warmest Colour, last year's celebrated winner of Cannes' coveted Palme d' Or, is being targeted under controversial Russian laws which have been widely interpreted as a crackdown on gay rights.

Members of Moscow's League of Safe Internet (LBI) group have complained to local prosecutors and the Russian ministry of culture that Abdellatif Kechiche's film falls foul of statutes introduced last year which limit "gay propaganda" towards young people. They also accuse the salacious romance, itself the subject of controversy after stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux alleged Kechiche bullied them on set, of veering into child porn territory.

"The film has plenty of overtly pornographic scenes, which take up most of the screen time," LBI executive director Denis Davydov told Russian daily Izvestia, in comments first translated by the Hollywood Reporter. "[Two] women are engaged in lesbian sex, one of whom is a 15-year-old girl. The fact that the actress who plays her is over 18 doesn't matter. She could as well be 40. The audience views her as a minor."
Link to video: Blue is the Warmest Colour: watch a clip of the Cannes Palme d'Or winner

LBI said Blue is the Warmest Colour, which has already concluded its theatrical run, should not have been issued a licence by the culture ministry. Any prohibition would target the film's appearance on home video and television.

For the record, Seydoux is 28 and Exarchopoulos is 19. The actors, who were awarded the Palme d'Or jointly with Kechiche for their unique commitment to the film, hit the headlines in September after claiming the Franco-Tunisian film-maker ranted and raved at them as he sought to achieve optimum realism during the production. The two stars said they would never work with Kechiche again after being put through a gruelling 10-day shoot for the 10-minute love scene at the centre of the film and being forced into a continuous one-hour take - during which the director allegedly refused to allow his stars to simulate blows - for a separate fight scene. Kechiche later hit back, appearing to threaten legal action and accusing the actors of indecency for complaining about doing what he said was one of the best jobs in the world.

It is not the first time Blue is the Warmest Colour has come under attack in Russia. In November protestors targeted the film during its screening at St Petersburg's LGBT film festival Side By Side


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« Reply #12768 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:28 AM »


Swiss regulators step up scrutiny of foreign exchange markets

Competition commission to investigate Swiss, US and British banks over collusion on currency rates

Reuters
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014   

Swiss regulators stepped up their scrutiny of alleged manipulation of foreign exchange markets yesterday.

Switzerland's competition commission Weko said it opened an investigation into several Swiss, US and British banks including Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland, over potential collusion to manipulate currency rates.

The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), meanwhile, said it will assess if banks have cut the risk of traders manipulating benchmark rates in the coming year, to see if lessons have been learned from the scandal over benchmark rate rigging.

In addition to Barclays and RBS WEKO said it is investigating UBS, Credit Suisse , Zuercher Kantonalbank (ZKB), Julius Baer, JP Morgan and Citigroup. "Evidence exists that these banks colluded to manipulate exchange rates in foreign currency trades," Weko said, adding it assumed the most important exchange rates were affected.

Regulators around the world are looking closely at traders' behaviour on a number of key benchmarks, spanning interest rates, foreign exchange and commodities markets. Eight financial firms have already been fined billions of dollars by US and European regulators in the past two years for manipulating benchmark interest rates and several more are being investigated.

The probe into currency trading could be even more costly. Authorities in the United States, Britain, Switzerland, Germany and Singapore are looking into allegations of collusion and manipulation by traders at major banks of the largely unregulated $5.3tn-a-day foreign exchange market.

"Even if there is no further alleged wrongdoing, the current concerns will take years to work out," said Marshall Bailey, head of the ACI Financial Markets Association, the sector's main international umbrella organisation.

Credit Suisse said it was "astonished" to be drawn into such a probe after not being subject to a preliminary investigation last year. It said WEKO's statement contained incorrect references to Credit Suisse which were "inappropriate and harmful" to its reputation.

Aside from the fines, banks fear that the response to the row from international regulators and politicians will put an end to the self-regulation model the sector has championed for decades and, in the process, raise the cost of foreign exchange dealing for banks, companies and individuals.

WEKO said it was in touch with some international authorities but had not been prompted by a foreign authority to open the investigation. "We have to conduct the investigation ourselves. There's no legal basis at the moment to exchange data directly with foreign authorities," WEKO director Rafael Corazza told Reuters.

WEKO opened a preliminary investigation last October after learning about potential manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

Julius Baer said an internal investigation had found no evidence of foreign exchange market abuse. Zuercher Kantonalbank, Switzerland's biggest regional bank, said it would co-operate with authorities.

RBS said it would co-operate with any investigation, but declined to comment further. UBS, JP Morgan, Barclays and Citi all declined to comment.

WEKO Vice Director Olivier Schaller said the WEKO investigation would take months and could result in fines of up to 10% of turnover generated in the relevant market in Switzerland over the last three years.

UBS last week suspended up to six FX traders, bringing the total number of traders suspended, placed on leave or fired to around 30.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) last year estimated the daily turnover in foreign exchange markets of 25 sizeable banks in Switzerland amounted to $216bn.

London dominates foreign exchange trading, accounting for 40.9% of global turnover last year, compared with 18.9% in the US and 3.2% in Switzerland, according to Bank of International Settlements data.

The FCA said it will also look at whether investment banks are handling potential conflicts of interest adequately and ensuring that so-called "Chinese walls" are strong enough to prevent confidential information received in one part of the business not being abused by a different part of the business.


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« Reply #12769 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:33 AM »


France's New PM Valls: Tough-Talking and Popular

by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 March 2014, 20:55

He has feuded with fellow ministers and is regularly brushed with controversy, but France's new Prime Minister Manuel Valls is one of the country's most popular politicians.

As approval ratings plummeted for the rest of France's Socialist government over the course of its first two years in office, the good-looking interior minister was almost alone in defying the trend.

A natural in front of the television cameras, the Barcelona-born 51-year-old has won respect from voters across the political spectrum with a tough-talking style, particularly on the issues of crime and insecurity.

His style and his politics have drawn comparisons with former British premier Tony Blair -- which is far from being a compliment for many in the Socialist Party, in which Valls sometimes appears to be something of a misfit.

Valls came under heavy fire last October following the deportation of a 15-year-old Roma girl and her family to Kosovo, after she was taken off a bus in the middle of a school trip.

Accusing police of humiliating the girl and violating her rights, critics rounded on Valls, with some demanding his resignation.

But polls showed that the overwhelming majority of voters backed Valls in that row and he retained the confidence of Hollande, with whom he is personally close.

Friends acknowledge the abrasiveness, but also highlight a warmer and charismatic side to his personality.

"He says things with a certain honesty, a certain clearness, and yes, sometimes a certain roughness," Alain Bauer, a prominent French criminologist and friend of Valls since their student days, told Agence France Presse.

"He has vitality, dynamism, energy -- and that rallies people around him."

Valls has consistently topped opinion polls as France's favorite politician, although the approval ratings of up to 70 percent he enjoyed last year have slipped recently as a result of the tough stance he took in trying to ban anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala.

That hit his standing with Dieudonne supporters and France's influential free-speech campaigners, but he remains much admired by most voters, including some women impressed by his intense Iberian looks and sharp-fitting suits.

A survey for Elle magazine last year revealed one in five French ladies liked the idea of a "torrid affair" with the twice-married minister -- a finding that delighted his glamorous second wife, the professional violinist Anne Gravoin.

"Manuel absolutely deserves it -- and a lot more besides," she said at the time. "He's a very lovable man."

Although he does not encourage the comparison, Valls shares some of Blair's political instincts, frequently defining himself in opposition to dearly held positions of his own party.

Neither does the father of four fit the mold of the typical French politician in terms of background and education.

The son of a Catalan artist who left Spain during the dictatorship of General Franco, Valls only obtained French nationality at the age of 20. He did not attend the elite ENA university that produced Hollande and many other members of the French political elite.

After joining the Socialist Party as a student, Valls made a name for himself as one of the most vocal reformers in the party, at one point even suggesting the word "Socialist" be dropped from its name.

He angered many in the party by attacking some of its sacred cows, including the 35-hour work week.

On economic policy, his thinking is influenced by the pro-business, flexible approach of the most recent generation of Scandinavian Social Democrats -- a world away from the radical neo-Keynesianism of the left of the Socialist Party.

After a series of parliamentary and party posts, Valls was elected mayor of the tough multicultural Paris suburb of Evry in 2001 and to the National Assembly a year later.

He remained a party outsider, derided by many as a closet right-winger with a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Undeterred, Valls ran in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary but scored a lowly six percent, eventually throwing his support behind Hollande and running the future president's campaign communications.

When Hollande took office last year, Valls was rewarded with the interior minister's post. He immediately made waves by continuing the previous government's contentious policy of dismantling camps belonging to Roma migrants from eastern Europe.

He clashed with Justice Minister Christiane Taubira over penal reforms he regards as soft on crime and triggered an outcry by saying Roma migrants living rough should be "delivered back to the borders" because they would never assimilate.

Even some of his cabinet colleagues suggested that comment was racist, but, bolstered by surging poll ratings, Valls refused to apologize and Hollande stood by him. Perhaps the president knew he would one day have need of him.
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« Reply #12770 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:41 AM »


Erdogan's election victory could be good news for Turkish democracy

To western eyes, re-electing a leader accused of corruption and autocratic tendencies is puzzling, but it may in fact be good news

Mohammed Ayoob   
theguardian.com, Monday 31 March 2014 14.18 BST          

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had deliberately projected the 30 March local elections in Turkey as a referendum on his rule. Results give his party, the AKP, about 45% of the votes – up 5% from the last local elections – with its principal challenger the CHP more than 16 percentage points behind. This has vindicated his claim that almost half the Turkish population supports him and his party despite the corruption scandals surrounding his government.

Some Turkish commentators seem puzzled by the fact that "half of the corruption claims [faced by Erdoğan] in any other democratic country would be enough for the collapse of the government." However, the election outcome is less puzzling when analysed in the Turkish political context. Corruption had been an endemic part of the Turkish political system until the AKP came to power in 2002, and the party seemed to have a relatively clean record until recently. Turkish voters are therefore used to taking corruption claims in their stride. The difference between earlier governments and that of the AKP is that the former were corrupt as well as economically inefficient, if not disastrous. The AKP government, even if corrupt, has delivered on the economic front with a very visible rise in the income level and standard of living of the average Turkish citizen.

Furthermore, the benefits of the past decade's economic growth have percolated down to the previously disadvantaged segments of society, the "Black" Turks, whose economic and political demands and requirements had been neglected by governments led by the Kemalist elites. They were, and continue to be, seen by many in the Anatolian heartland as representatives of the "White" Turks from the western seaboard who had ruled the republic for much of its first 80 years, and with whom the CHP is identified. There are, therefore, significant class and regional divisions between the AKP supporters and its opponents. The regional division has been clearly reflected in the local elections.

But there is more to it than class and region. The divide between "Black" and "White" Turks corresponds quite closely with the observant and self-conscious Muslim majority and the so-called secular minority. The resentment of the former towards the latter, who had formed the traditional ruling class until 2002, is still palpable, as reflected in the following statement by a "Black" Turk on 30 March: "I am voting for the AKP because I'm terrified of what will happen if the CHP came back to power. We lived like peasants under their rule, walking on streets cleaning rubbish, hiding our wives at home because they wear head scarves. I don't think the AKP is perfect, but there is a future under their rule for my grandchildren."

Erdoğan is a product and a representative of this divide, and it is the main reason why he is so reviled by the secular elite and, despite all his faults, loved by the descendants of the Anatolian peasantry. However, it is not only his religiously observant image that appeals to his followers. It is his combative personality – the fact he does not hesitate to take on the entrenched Turkish elite as well as global powers – that appeals to them as well. He personifies the desire of the majority of the Turkish population to demonstrate that they count both domestically and internationally; that they are autonomous actors both at home and abroad.

This is what sets him apart from the other Turkish Islamist trend, that which is represented by Fethullah Gülen, who portrays the "goody goody" face of Turkish Islam by presenting it as an essentially western religion principally engaged in interfaith and educational activities. No wonder Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, is popular in the west while Erdoğan is perceived as the "bully from Kasimpasa", the rough neighbourhood in Istanbul where he grew up. However, Gülen's soft image does not cut much ice with the Anatolian voter, except for a committed cadre of Gülenists that form the Hizmet movement.

It was assumed that the latter were important allies of the AKP, and helped it secure victories in the past three parliamentary elections. However, as the latest elections demonstrate, the Gülen movement's contribution was vastly overrated. When the two fell out over the past year and engaged in vicious attacks and counterattacks, it was assumed that this would detract considerably from the AKP's popularity among its conservative, observant base. Nothing of that sort happened. In fact, the AKP's share of the votes went up when compared with the previous round of local elections, demonstrating the near-total irrelevance of the Gülen movement to Turkey's domestic politics.

An additional factor contributed to the AKP's impressive victory: its main opponent, the CHP, has virtually no presence in the Kurdish areas in the east an south-east of the country. Even though a breakdown of Kurdish votes is not yet available, it would be safe to assume these were shared between the AKP and the pro-Kurdish BDP. The AKP must have also received a boost in Kurdish eyes because it has been seriously negotiating a settlement of the Kurdish problem with Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK. The Gülen movement's opposition to the AKP is also likely to have stimulated Kurdish voters to support the party because Hizmet is seen as opposed to Kurdish autonomy, and even to Kurdish cultural rights.

The AKP's victory in the local elections does not, however, resolve the basic conundrum facing the party and the country: how can the norms of liberal democracy that ensure freedom of political expression be reconciled with the presence of a strong and popular leader who harbours autocratic tendencies? Commentators are assuming that this electoral victory will augment the authoritarian streak in Erdoğan. However, if after being vindicated at the polls and, thus feeling secure, he is able to rise above the petty bickering of day-to-day politics and rein in his autocratic tendencies, he will be doing yeoman service to the cause of Turkish democracy.

******************

Turkey's Opposition to Contest Ankara Local Poll Result

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 13:11

Turkey's secular main opposition party said Tuesday it would contest a narrow poll win in Ankara mayoral elections claimed by the Islamic-rooted party of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, citing "irregularities".

The Turkish capital was a key battleground and symbolic prize in Sunday's municipal elections, in which Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored sweeping victories nationwide despite a corruption scandal and recent street protests.

"We will appeal today at the Supreme Electoral Board over hundreds of ballot boxes in Ankara," lawmaker Aykan Erdemir of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), told Agence France Presse in Ankara, Turkey's second biggest city.

"More than 1,000 volunteers have been working for over 48 hours to check data at the party headquarters. We have evidence of irregularities."

Ankara was purpose-built in the Anatolian interior as the national capital by the secular founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

According to provisional official results, the AKP mayor Melik Gokcek, who has held the post for two decades, won the city by a wafer-thin margin of 44.79 percent against 43.77 percent for CHP candidate Mansur Yavas.

Allegations of election fraud have circulated on social media, including a photo which purportedly shows ballots in a garbage heap, and there have been complaints over electricity blackouts in some areas during the evening vote-count.

Yavas wrote on his Twitter account Monday that a recount "will reveal the truth".

Supreme Electoral Board president Sadi Guven told reporters: "This is a legal process. We will wait and see. Citizens and political parties should remain calm."

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has blamed other power outages in part of Turkey Sunday on weather conditions and said, "those who lost the elections should not use power cuts as an excuse for their defeat".

In the case of Ankara, where in some areas ballots were counted by candle-light, the minister also blamed a cat that had slipped into a power distribution unit and presumably was electrocuted when it caused a short circuit.

"I am not joking, friends," he said. "A cat walked into a transformer unit. That's why there was a power cut. It's not the first time this has happened."
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« Reply #12771 on: Apr 01, 2014, 06:54 AM »

Explosives Cache Seized before Afghan Elections

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 14:44

Afghan police seized 22 tonnes of explosives destined for use in suicide and roadside bombs, officials said Tuesday, four days before elections that Taliban insurgents have vowed to attack.

The explosives were uncovered in dozens of plastic-wrapped bags in the northern province of Takhar, as security forces ramp up efforts to protect candidates, election staff and voters.

"The national police have discovered a cache containing 22,220 kilograms of explosives used for making roadside bombs and (carrying out) suicide attacks," a statement from the interior ministry said.

"The cache was discovered in a village outside Taloqan (Takhar's provincial capital)."

A spokesman said investigations were underway to establish how the explosives were due to be deployed in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has pledged to ensure a safe election, despite the gradual withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO troops from the country.

National police and soldiers will provide security for the vote, though the NATO military coalition has said it will assist if necessary.

Saturday's vote will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in an election seen as a benchmark of progress since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

Election offices in the capital, Kabul's most prestigious hotel and a guesthouse run by a U.S. anti-landmine charity have all been targeted by insurgents in recent weeks.


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« Reply #12772 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:03 AM »

U.S. ambassador to India quits after rift over diplomat’s arrest

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 31, 2014 15:17 EDT

The U.S. ambassador to India resigned Monday in the wake of a bitter rift between the usually friendly countries following a diplomat’s arrest in New York.

The announcement by Nancy Powell, a veteran diplomat with extensive experience in South Asia, comes days before India heads into elections in which the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi — formerly a US pariah — is forecast by polls to become prime minister.

Powell, in a brief statement, did not elaborate on her reasons but said that her decision was “planned for some time” and that she will retire by the end of May in the eastern U.S. state of Delaware. She is in her late 60s.

Powell, who has been ambassador for less than two years, submitted her resignation to President Barack Obama and announced her decision at a meeting of staff in New Delhi, said the statement issued by the embassy.

She is leaving after the worst crisis between the United States and India since they started building a warmer relationship in the 1990s. India voiced outrage in December when one of its diplomats, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched in New York on charges of underpaying her servant.

U.S. diplomats expressed regret over the diplomat’s treatment but appeared to have been blind-sided by the decision taken by prosecutors. Khobragade returned to India under a deal, but prosecutors went ahead in March with a second indictment.

In February, Powell took the lead in U.S. policy by meeting with Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and candidate for prime minister of the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party.

The United States had earlier refused Modi a visa on human rights grounds over anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Critics accused Modi of turning a blind eye or worse to the violence, although investigations cleared him of personal blame.

Despite the controversy in Washington over Modi, most policymakers agreed that the United States needed to reach out to him due to the likelihood he will become prime minister.

Powell, who holds the prestigious title of career ambassador, served as a U.S. diplomat for 37 years and was previously the top U.S. envoy in Ghana, Nepal, Pakistan and Uganda.

*****************

Years After Obama Hailed Warming Ties With India, the Temperature Has Fallen

By GARDINER HARRIS
MARCH 31, 2014
IHT

NEW DELHI — When President Obama visited India in 2010, he called the warming relationship between it and the United States the “defining partnership of the 21st century.” Decades of disagreements, from Cold War ideological battles to squabbles over the United States’ close relationship with India’s archrival, Pakistan, would take a back seat to the many shared interests of two of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies.

But almost four years later, the United States and India have found themselves on opposite sides of the world’s most important diplomatic issues, from the crisis in Ukraine, in which India came to Russia’s defense, to a long-awaited vote to investigate Sri Lanka’s government for atrocities committed at the end of its civil war (India abstained). Even critical military coordination over the reduction of troops in nearby Afghanistan has suffered.

Far from coordinating on major global issues, the two countries are embroiled in a series of spats over privileges, visas and even swimming pools in a nasty fight stemming from the arrest and strip-search in New York City of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular official, in December on charges of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for a housekeeper whom she then severely underpaid.

The arrest infuriated senior members of India’s diplomatic service, many of whom had paid their maids comparably when posted in New York, a plum assignment. For them, the arrest was one of a series of American actions deemed insensitive here.

And on Monday, the United States’ ambassador in New Delhi, Nancy J. Powell, announced her resignation after a 37-year diplomatic career. While Ms. Powell told a gathering at the embassy that her departure was unrelated to growing problems with India, she had become a focus of unhappiness among Indian diplomats and politicians. Indian news media had reported speculation that the United States was considering replacing Ms. Powell in hopes of improving ties.

“There is a growing feeling among Indian policy makers that no matter what concessions or policy adjustments our leadership pushes through at the request of American businesses and the administration, there is always something new to complain about,” said a senior Indian diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “There is a feeling that no one in this administration is a champion of the India-U.S. relationship.”

American diplomats have largely refused to speak publicly about the growing problems, describing the disputes as routine disagreements that other countries would resolve quietly.

“Like any two large and vibrant democracies we have differences reflecting our respective cultures and histories,” said  Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. “But it’s a sign of the maturing nature of our relationship that we work through our differences and focus on the important work we have to do together.”

Several top American officials said they hoped that a new Indian government, likely to be in place in May, would help reset relations.

But that will not be easy. After Russia invaded Crimea, much of the world criticized Moscow, with even China and Iran obliquely expressing concerns. India, almost alone among major countries, supported Russia, with its national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, citing “legitimate Russian and other interests involved.” In response, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia praised “India’s reserve and objectivity” in a March 18 speech before the Duma. On Thursday, India was among 58 countries that abstained from a United Nations General Assembly vote seen as condemning Russia.

That same day in Geneva, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, India was one of 12 nations to abstain on a resolution, strongly backed by the United States, calling for an independent investigation into war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The abstention came after India had supported two previous resolutions backed by the United States regarding Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“The Indians have not made it easy,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former senior American diplomat and now a professor of diplomacy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It would certainly be of benefit if the Indians were stronger partners in the major challenges to peace like Iran and Russia in recent years.”

In person, Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India have demonstrated affection for each other, with Mr. Obama calling Mr. Singh his guru and Mr. Singh referring to Mr. Obama as a personal friend.

But Mr. Singh is not expected to remain as prime minister past May, no matter who wins coming elections, and he has all but disappeared from Indian politics in recent weeks. Senior Indian diplomats also complain that Mr. Obama has ignored India.

“We can’t get any attention from this administration, but you can’t solve serious problems without them,” said another senior Indian diplomat who also was not authorized to speak publicly. “They’re busy with Russia, Syria, the Middle East and Iran. But in the current circumstances, it is vital that they also pay attention to the India relationship soon, since the current drift could get much worse.”

Jonah Blank, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research institution, said Indian complaints about the Obama administration’s centralized decision-making process had merit.

“In this administration, there is a small group of people in the White House making all the decisions, so issues that are important but not urgent rarely get the attention they deserve,” Mr. Blank said.

And so, in response to Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, officials here have revoked some privileges of American diplomats, removing security barriers in front of the American Embassy and investigating the American Embassy School.

Indian officials also point to a host of other irritants, including a potential downgrade in status by the American trade representative in response to complaints by companies such as the drug maker Pfizer that India does not protect patents; an investigation by the United States International Trade Commission that Indians consider insulting; complaints about the quality of Indian-made pharmaceuticals; and disagreements over taxes, immigration and manufacturing policies that could hurt Indian interests.

To American diplomats, these issues are the natural result of a deepening economic and strategic relationship. To India, the disputes reflect the demands of an overbearing superpower.

Both sides emphasize that the relationship is far better than it was during the Cold War when President Richard M. Nixon sent the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. As recently as 2000, an episode of “The West Wing” showed a fictional President Josiah Bartlet mediating between a reasonable and urbane Pakistani ambassador and a bellicose and unhinged Indian one — views of the two countries that have flipped almost entirely since then.

“This relationship is one that still needs nurturing,” said K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to the United States. “And there doesn’t seem to be anyone on either side doing that.”

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« Reply #12773 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:04 AM »


Bangladesh Detains Students for 'Defaming Prophet'

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 10:27

Two students were detained in Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong after they were attacked by a mob over allegations they defamed the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, police said Tuesday.

Police filed primary charges against the two 18-year-olds under the country's Information Communications Technology (ICT) laws after investigators found anti-religious comments on their Facebook pages, local police chief Atiq Ahmed Chowdhury told Agence France Presse.

"Our officers rescued them from a mob of angry students who were beating them in a Chittagong college on Sunday," he said.

A court remanded the two accused in custody after rejecting their application for bail, Chowdhury added.

Deputy commissioner of of Chittagong police Rezaul Masud told AFP the two could face a maximum 14 years in jail and a fine of around 10 million taka ($125,000) if they were found guilty under the controversial Article 57 of the ICT laws.

Defence lawyer Abu Bakar Siddique Azim told the Dhaka Tribune daily that his clients denied the accusations and had not "made any kind of public writings that goes against anyone's religious belief".

Muslim-majority Bangladesh is officially secular, but the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has used Article 57 to crack down on dissent and anti-religious bloggers.

Last year four bloggers were arrested and were detained for months after they were accused of making anti-Islam comments. An editor of a pro-opposition daily and two leading human rights defenders were also detained using the same law.


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« Reply #12774 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:05 AM »


Food Shortages Loom as Aid Workers Flee West Myanmar

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 10:05

Thousands of vulnerable people in strife-torn western Myanmar are close to running out of food and clean water, according to aid groups forced to flee the region after a wave of mob violence.

Many displaced people -- mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims -- living in bleak camps in Rakhine State are completely reliant on humanitarian deliveries, which have now stopped as a result of the unprecedented attacks on relief organisations.

"We are very concerned about the impact that this is having on humanitarian operations," said Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"We are working day and night to find short term solutions to prevent people running out of food and water."

He said water stocks for roughly 18,000 people in two isolated camps in the township of Pauktaw were "critical", but added that efforts were being made to equip government boats to deliver fresh supplies.

Health services, particularly emergency medical referrals, have been "severely impacted", he said.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was expelled from Rakhine last month - a move that particularly affected Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingya who are subject to harsh restrictions by the state which views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Humanitarian workers fear they will be prevented from offering essential supplies and healthcare to more than 170,000 people in camps and remote villages around the Rakhine state capital Sittwe.

The looming shortages -- ahead of the monsoon season -- threaten to deepen the desperation of families forced to flee their homes following several outbreaks of deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence since 2012.

"Without food and water this could undoubtedly lead to increased tensions, not only between communities but within communities," said a foreign aid worker who did not want to be named.

International relief groups have come under mounting pressure from local Buddhists who accuse them of bias towards Muslims.

It is the first time that they have been forced to pull out from impoverished Rakhine en masse.

Their staff have faced threats and a concerted Buddhist nationalist campaign to stop local people cooperating with them.

The aid worker said lists had appeared on social media naming foreign organisations working in the state, detailing their employees and giving their home, office and warehouse addresses.

The names of local suppliers, landlords and drivers have also been circulated.

"We are in a situation that we expect that no one will rent us an office, no one will rent us a car, no one will sell us anything," said a second humanitarian worker who also asked to remain anonymous.

Boats used to deliver aid to some camps have been destroyed, removing a vital lifeline.

The impending start of the rainy season is also heightening concerns about the spread of disease.

Food shortages are already beginning to bite in the isolated camps, which hold some 140,000 displaced people, with locals reporting that the price of rice has doubled in recent days.

"We have had no rations for five, six days already and are facing trouble," said Thein Mya, 57, who lives in Thet Kae Pyin camp. "Is there some problem in town?"

The latest violence began last week when Buddhists accused an American aid worker of handling a Buddhist religious flag in a disrespectful manner.

Angry mobs later damaged and ransacked the offices, property and warehouses of international groups, causing dozens of aid workers to seek police protection.

An 11-year-old girl was accidentally shot as police fired warning rounds to try to disperse crowds.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called "for the protection of all civilians and the full respect for the rule of law," in a phone call with President Thein Sein on Sunday, the U.N. said.

Tensions have been heightened by Myanmar's first census in three decades, which has stoked fury among Buddhists that it might lead to official recognition for the Rohingya.

An AFP journalist in the camps said the vast majority of Muslims there were not being counted in the tally, after the government said it would not register them if they called themselves Rohingya.


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« Reply #12775 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:06 AM »

HRW: Nepal Succumbing to Chinese Pressure on Tibetans

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 09:46

Tibetans in Nepal face heightened risks of being detained, beaten and even forcibly returned to China, as Kathmandu bows to growing diplomatic pressure from Beijing, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

The allegations, detailed in a new report based on the testimony of Tibetan refugees, monks, activists and senior Nepalese officials, highlight the intensified restrictions slapped on Tibetans in the Himalayan nation since 2008.

Nepal, home to around 20,000 Tibetans, is under huge pressure from its giant neighbor China over the exiles, and has repeatedly said it will not tolerate what it calls "anti-China activities".

"Nepal...is succumbing to Chinese pressure to limit the flow of Tibetans across the border and imposing restrictions on Tibetans in violation of its legal obligations," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Tibetans face a de facto ban on protests, increased surveillance and even reported attempts to force escapees back to China in contravention of Kathmandu's agreement with the U.N.'s refugee agency, the report said.

Although Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, it operates a "Gentleman's Agreement" with the U.N. under which it guarantees Tibetans in transit safe passage to India, where they can obtain refugee status.

As Beijing and Kathmandu have tightened border restrictions, the number of exiles arriving in Nepal dropped to a record low of 171 in 2013, down from more than 2,000 in 2007.

In one instance, a former home ministry official told the rights group that local border police sent back Tibetans found in the border regions if they believed they were not "legitimate refugees".

There was no immediate response from the authorities in Nepal.


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« Reply #12776 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:17 AM »

Japan Lifts Own Blanket Arms Export Ban

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 07:56

Japan on Tuesday lifted a self-imposed ban on weapons exports, introducing new rules covering the arms trade in a move supporters say will boost Tokyo's global role, but which could unnerve China.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a new plan that replaces the 1967 blanket ban, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

Under the policy, arms sales are banned to conflict-plagued countries or nations that could undermine international peace and security, the sales must contribute to international peace and they must boost Japan's security.

"Under the new principles, we have made the procedure for transfer of defense equipment more transparent. That will contribute to peace and international cooperation from the standpoint of proactive pacifism," Suga said.

"And we will participate in joint development and production of defence equipment," he said.

Japan's post-World War II constitution, imposed by the U.S.-led occupiers, banned the country from waging war.

That pacifism was embraced by the population at large and two decades later a weapons export ban was introduced.

Supporters hope the relaxation in the policy will boost home-grown arms manufacturers at a time of simmering regional tensions including a territorial row with China and fears over an unpredictable North Korea.

The new rules could allow Tokyo to supply weaponry to nations that sit along important sea lanes to help them fight piracy -- an important strategic consideration for resource-poor Japan.

Japanese arms could potentially be shipped to Indonesia as well as nations around the South China Sea -- through which fossil fuels pass -- such as the Philippines, which has a territorial dispute with Beijing.

Japan already supplies equipment to the Philippines' coastguard, an organisation that is increasingly on the front line in the row with Beijing.

Any move to bolster that support with more outright weapon supplies could irk China, which regularly accuses Abe of trying to re-militarize his country.

China and Japan are at loggerheads over the ownership of a string of islands in the East China Sea, while Beijing is also in dispute with several nations over territory in the South China Sea, which it claims almost in its entirety.


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« Reply #12777 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:18 AM »


Key Protest Leader Not on Ballot in Rebel China Village

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 10:41

Voters in a Chinese village that overthrew its Communist Party bosses in landmark elections two years ago went to the polls again on Tuesday, but a key protest leader was absent from the ballot.

Wukan, in south China's Guangdong province, grabbed headlines worldwide in 2011 when locals staged huge protests and drove out Communist Party officials they accused of illegal land grabs and the death of a detained local villager.

The protest leaders were swept to office in free elections the following year.

Yang Semao, a firebrand former protester, received thousands of votes in Monday's poll for a new village committee, when another ex-demonstrator Lin Zuluan was re-elected as its chief.

But Yang told Agence France Presse he pulled out of the run-off ballot for the remaining six slots on the committee because of irreconcilable differences with Lin.

"He's a quiet, compromising type of person, but I like to speak out," Yang said.

Yang described this week's elections as "somewhat, but not totally democratic", amid fears that higher authorities are reasserting their power.

"Involvement from the city government has been significant, that's the main reason," he added.

Yang and another candidate were accused of corruption earlier this month by authorities in Lufeng, the city that administers the village.

Despite the graft allegations, he is a popular figure seen as less closely-connected to city officials than Lin.

"I would vote for Yang Semao, but he's dropped out, it's a shame," said a 24-year-old also surnamed Yang, as he scrutinised the list of candidates on Tuesday.

"The village committee isn't powerful -- they never really achieved anything," he added, expressing a common sentiment in the village.

Many residents of Wukan, a fishing village where locals said around 430 hectares (1,060 acres) of land had been illegally seized and sold, have become disappointed with the committee leaders elected in 2012, after they failed to reverse many of the losses.

State-backed land-grabs are a key driver of unrest in rural China, fueling the majority of the tens of thousands of protests taking place in the countryside each year, according to estimates.

As on Monday, a heavy presence of workers sent by the government of Lufeng were standing close to voters on Tuesday at a polling station in a local school.

Residents arrived in a steady stream but candidates did not make public speeches, in contrast to the carnival atmosphere of the village's post-rebellion election.


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« Reply #12778 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:20 AM »

Australia to Deploy Flying Air Traffic Controller

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 08:58

Australia is deploying a modified Boeing 737 to act as a flying air traffic controller over the Indian Ocean to prevent a mid-air collision among the large number of aircraft searching for the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that went missing over three weeks ago.

According to an Australian government briefing note read out to The Associated Press by an official, the air force is sending an E-7A Wedgetail equipped with advanced radar to start monitoring the search zone Tuesday.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Ten planes and nine ships were taking part in Tuesday's search for Flight 370, which vanished March 8 with 239 people bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.


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« Reply #12779 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:22 AM »


US 'may release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to kickstart peace process'

Agent held since 1985 could be freed in deal to persuade Israel to press on with a planned release of Palestinian prisoners

Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 April 2014 14.18 BST   

Jonathan Pollard, serving a life sentence in a US jail for spying for Israel, could be released as part of a putative "grand bargain" to breathe new life into the stalled Middle East peace process.

Speculation that Pollard's release was being seriously considered by the US re-emerged on Monday as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, flew to the Middle East for the second time in a week for urgent meetings with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as the peace talks appeared at crisis point. He is to return on Wednesday for talks in Ramallah with the President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry has been spearheading efforts to find a way out of the current deadlock in the US-sponsored Middle East peace process, which was restarted eight months ago, after Israel failed to release a fourth group of long-term Palestinian prisoners being held in its jails. It had previously agreed to release the group at the weekend.

Israel had been seeking a guarantee that the Palestinians would not immediately abandon the latest round of talks when the original deadline for negotiating a framework agreement expires on 29 April.

According to a US official quoted by Haaretz newspaper: "The key would be a big US concession for a big Israeli concession." Pollard has served 29 years of a life sentence and is not due for consideration for parole until next year.

Separately the New York Times quoted an official suggesting that Pollard's release was under consideration, although no decision had been taken.

Kerry and Barack Obama have made huge efforts and placed US credibility on the line in their attempts to resuscitate the peace process and usher in a two-state solution. However, hopes that both sides could be persuaded to sign up to a framework agreement that would lay the ground work for substantive talks on the key issues – including the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees – have hit a series of obstacles.

At present the talks are blocked over efforts to find a way to continue the period of negotiations beyond the end of April.

On the Palestinian side, officials are insisting that Israel abide by its agreement over the scheduled prisoner release, which they say must not be linked to an extension of the talks deadline.

Abbas has been seeking US mediation, including by Obama, for the release of three of the most prominent Palestinian prisoners including, most significantly, senior Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.

However, sources close to the talks suggested overnight that Pollard's release was being linked to a potential deal that would see a much larger release of Palestinian prisoners – up to 400 – and an unofficial freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem in exchange for both sides agreeing to extend the April deadline.

Pollard's release as part of such a deal, however, is being opposed by some of his most prominent supporters including the hardline Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, a member of Netanyahu's cabinet.

Ariel told Israel's Army Radio that Pollard did not want to be freed from a US jail in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, saying people close to the convicted spy had told him that Pollard opposed such a "shameful deal".

Ariel's comments echo similar remarks made to the Guardian last week by the Knesset's deputy speaker, and long-term campaigner on Pollard's behalf, Moshe Feiglin. He has visited Pollard in jail and has long insisted that he would refuse to be released in exchange "for terrorists".

Realistically, however, he is unlikely to have any say in the circumstances of his release.

Pollard, who was arrested in 1985, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the US navy when he gave classified documents to Israeli handlers. He was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995.

Kerry met Netanyahu for several hours late on Monday before sitting down with him again on Tuesday morning before his scheduled departure for Brussels for Nato talks on Ukraine, he did not meet Abbas, instead holding talks with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

US defence and intelligence officials have long argued against releasing Pollard. The president and his predecessors have refused to release him despite pleas from Israeli leaders.

On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to discuss any possible deal.


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