Ukraine Blames Russian Agents for Kiev Carnage
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 14:48
Ukraine's new Western-backed leaders on Thursday blamed Russian agents and the ousted pro-Kremlin president for organizing two days of carnage in Kiev that killed nearly 90 supporters of closer EU ties.
The explosive allegation were leveled only moments after Russia lashed out at NATO for building up the defenses of ex-Soviet nations and brandished the threat of further hikes in the price Ukraine must pay for gas after ousting its Kremlin-backed leaders.
The February unrest in Kiev has left deep scars on a nation trying to overcome the most trying episode in its post-Soviet history.
The furious battle for Ukraine's future between Moscow and the West has exposed the deep divide that splits the nation of 46 million between those who see themselves as either culturally tied to Russia and or a part of a broader Europe.
Those tensions exploded on February 18 when gunshots in the heart of Kiev heralded the start of nearly three days of pitch battles between riot police and protesters -- some armed with nothing more than metal shield -- that killed scores dead.
Both sides have blamed the other for starting the violence. But no formal probe results had been unveiled in Kiev until acting interior minister Arsen Avakov presented his initial findings to reporters on Thursday.
Avakov's conclusion was decisive and potentially devastating for the new leaders' future relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The acting interior minister said that deposed president Viktor Yanukovych had issued the "criminal order" to fire at the protesters while agents from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) helped him plan and carry out the assault.
"FSB agents took part in both the planning and execution of the so-called anti-terrorist operation," Avakov told reporters.
But an FSB spokesman told Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency that Ukraine's allegations were patently false.
"Let those allegations remain on the conscience of the Ukrainian security service," the unnamed FSB official said.
AFP reporters in February saw some protesters who were armed with hunting rifles and pistols.
But their number was small and a predominant majority of the tens of thousands who came out the streets were either unarmed or carrying wooden or metal shields.
- Russia demands NATO answers -
Europe's worst security crisis in decades appeared to be only gaining momentum on Thursday as NATO boosted the air power of ex-Soviet and Communist nations that Putin still views as part of Russia's strategic domain.
The 28-nation bloc has said firmly it did not intend to get militarily involved in Ukraine even if the ominous Russian force now massed along its eastern frontier made a push against its neighbor after annexing the flashpoint Crimea peninsula last month.
But the Alliance has vowed to review both its immediate strategy and historic mission after conceding that a Russian strike against Ukraine -- a non-NATO member with an ill-equiped and underfunded army -- could be both decisive and quick.
The U.S. Air Force this week sent 10 F-15 fighters to help NATO expand its military presence in the three tiny ex-Soviet Baltic nations -- a decision whose wisdom was angrily questioned on Thursday by Russia.
"We have addressed questions to the North Atlantic alliance," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters.
"We are awaiting not simply an answer, but an answer that will be fully based on the rules that we have (previously) agreed."
Lavrov added that up to 40,000 Russian troops that U.S. and EU officials believe are now staging snap military exercises near Ukraine were following all agreed international norms.
- Economic warfare -
The military buildup on the eastern edge of the European Union follows months of economic pressure that Russia had poured on Ukraine in a seeming effort to force its leaders to reverse their Westward course.
Russia's state energy giant Gazprom -- long accused of being wielded by the Kremlin as a weapon against uncooperative ex-Soviet and Eastern European states -- this week hiked the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas shipments on which its industries depend by 44 percent.
The punitive but largely expected step eliminated a price discount that Putin had extended the old government in December in reward for its decision to reject closer EU ties.
But Ukraine now faces the possibility of the price it pays for 1,000 cubic meters of gas jumping by another $100 -- to a European record of $485.50 -- within a matter of days.
Moscow defends the further rate increase by arguing that the $100 rebate it awarded Kiev in 2010 in return for its decision to extend a lease under which the Kremlin keeps its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea no longer applied because the peninsula was now a part of Russia.
The possibility of a further rate hike is expected to top the agenda of Thursday's talks in Moscow between the chief executives of Gazprom and the heads of Ukraine's state energy firm.
Crimea Opposed to Autonomy for Tatars
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 21:15
Crimea on Thursday said it was opposed to an autonomous territory for the Tatars, an ethnic minority that was against the Black Sea peninsula's recent annexation by Russia.
"No, that is not possible, there can only be a cultural autonomy," Crimean deputy prime minister Roustam Temirgaliev told the Russian news agency Ria Novosti.
Representatives of the Tatar community throughout Crimea held an emergency Qurultai, or congress, last week and decided to seek increased autonomy in a move widely seen as a challenge to the Kremlin.
The Tatars largely boycotted a March 16 referendum in which Crimea's Russian-speaking majority voted to split from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
Local leaders of the Turkish-speaking Muslim group say they are looking into holding their own referendum on increased autonomy.
The Tatars' spiritual leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, is a Ukrainian lawmaker, and many Tatars say they want to be part of Ukraine.
The Crimean Tatars, native inhabitants of the peninsula, spent decades in Central Asia after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered their banishment, ostensibly for Nazi collaboration.
They were allowed to move back in the late 1980s but are still battling with a host of issues including land ownership.
NATO Hits Out at Russian 'Propaganda'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 21:11
NATO hit back on Thursday at accusations by Moscow that the Western alliance was in violation of international law and accused Russia of fomenting "propaganda and disinformation" over the crisis in Ukraine.
"No, of course we haven't violated the Rome Declaration and I'm actually surprised that Russia can claim that NATO has violated its commitments because Russia is violating every principle and international commitment it has made," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
"First and foremost the commitment not to invade other countries," he said, speaking at a joint news conference with Estonia's new prime minister Taavi Roivas.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier on Thursday warned NATO that it should not deploy additional forces in the alliance's Eastern European member states as this would violate its agreements with Russia.
NATO has in the past weeks deployed AWACS reconnaissance aircraft over Poland, and the United States has sent additional fighter jets to step up NATO's air patrols over the Baltic states.
Rasmussen said NATO had "not received questions from Russia" about the deployments and that "anyway, these accusations are just propaganda and disinformation."
Earlier this week, NATO said it was suspending all practical cooperation with Russia and warned that Moscow forces, currently massed on the Ukraine border, could invade wide swathes of the country in a matter of days.
Ukraine in 'Emergency' Talks With European Neighbors Over Gas Imports
APRIL 4, 2014, 7:06 A.M. E.D.T.
KIEV — Ukraine is in emergency talks with European neighbours on the possibility of importing natural gas from the West, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said on Friday.
The urgency of securing affordable supplies has grown since Moscow boosted the price it charges Kiev for its gas twice this week, almost doubling its fees in three days, in price hikes criticised by Yatseniuk as "political"
"We are carrying out emergency talks with our European partners. One way to solve the problem is reverse gas from EU countries," Yatseniuk told reporters, adding that the main candidates for imports were Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.
"On a technical level, the idea of reverse gas raises no problems and we hope our European partners make the right decision. If it will be to reverse (gas), then it means the price for gas will be $150 dollars lower than Russian gas."
Russia has raised the price of gas to $485 per 1,000 cubic metres for Ukraine, where it is locked in the biggest confrontation with the West since the end of the Cold War.
Yatseniuk has called the price hikes "unacceptable" and warned that he expected Russia to increase pressure on Kiev by limiting supplies. Russia has annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and has made demands on Ukraine's new government.
Moscow has frequently used energy as a political weapon in dealing with its neighbours, and European customers are concerned Russia might again cut off deliveries.
Ukraine covers 50 percent of its gas needs with Russian supplies. It will soon get money from the International Monetary Fund under a new loan package but faces large debts and its economy is in chaos. The EU receives around half of its Russian gas supplies via Ukraine.
EU Must Be Ready With Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine: UK
APRIL 4, 2014, 7:03 A.M. E.D.T.
ATHENS — Europe should press ahead with drawing up tough economic sanctions against Russia because Moscow has not reduced tensions over Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Friday.
Hague, arriving for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Athens, said very large numbers of Russian forces remained on Ukraine's eastern border. There had been only a "token withdrawal" of those forces so far and the situation remained very dangerous, he said.
"We haven't seen real de-escalation by Russia and therefore Europe must not relax in preparing a third tier of sanctions and making sure we continue to have a strong and united response," he said, referring to tough trade and economic measures that the EU has threatened to take against Russia if it moves beyond Crimea into southern and eastern Ukraine.
At the meeting in the Greek capital, Hague and his EU counterparts will discuss new ways the European Union can help Ukraine overcome its conflict with Russia, and discuss how the bloc can approach its neighbors to the east and south more effectively.
They are not expected to make any decisions but could look at possible new sanctions against Russia and how the EU can help Kiev benefit from the EU's 11-billion-euro ($15 billion) aid package announced in recent weeks.
Hague said it was too early for the EU's 28 governments to bolster sanctions against Moscow for now. "But they have to be ready because the situation remains very dangerous," he said.
Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea has greatly strained its relations with Europe and is raising questions about the bloc's long-term policy towards Moscow and as well as about the EU's ability to support stability in the region.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Athens and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Robin Emmott and Toby Chopra)
Greek prime minister facing resignation calls after aide's Golden Dawn gaffe
Antonis Samaras's chief of staff caught on camera saying PM instigated inquiry into far-right party for political gain
Helena Smith in Athens
theguardian.com, Thursday 3 April 2014 18.29 BST
The Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has been struggling to contain a fresh political crisis after his chief of staff was filmed accusing him of instigating a judicial inquiry against the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party for political gain.
The gaffe led to the resignation of Takis Baltakos, Samaras's most trusted adviser, with the prime minister facing mounting calls from across the political spectrum for the government to step down.
"The prime minister cannot go on hiding," railed Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left main opposition party, Syriza. "The Samaras government has proved to be dangerous; it cannot continue handling the country's fate."
The aide's resignation on Wednesday came hours after the release of a video showing a highly embarrassing exchange between Baltakos and Golden Dawn's spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris. During the meeting, secretly filmed by Kasidiaris, the cabinet secretary is heard saying that a criminal investigation into the group was aimed purely at stemming losses for the ruling conservative party. "He's afraid for himself because you are cutting his lead over Syriza," he tells Kasidiaris in the video posted on YouTube.
In a febrile political atmosphere ahead of crucial European parliament elections, the recording has reinforced the perception of links between the far-right and factions in Samaras's New Democracy party.
Greece's third-biggest political force until the crackdown, Golden Dawn has long argued that the inquiry is politically motivated. Since the fatal stabbing of a leftwing rapper by a party cadre last September, six of its MPs, including Nikos Michaloliakos, who founded the group more than 30 years ago, have been imprisoned pending trial on charges of operating a criminal organisation.
This week parliament voted to lift the immunity from prosecution of another five deputies, bringing the number of politicians who face allegations of orchestrating attacks against immigrants, political opponents and members of Greece's gay community to 13. "They must be immediately set free," said Golden Dawn's parliamentary representative, Ilias Panayiotaros, repeating claims that the judiciary was being exploited by a rotten political establishment.
Baltakos, who co-ordinated government policies as Samaras's chief of staff, attempted on Thursday to distance the leader from what he described as a personal mission to stop Greeks from voting for the extremists. Golden Dawn's meteoric rise has been attributed to a shift in support by traditional rightwingers disgusted with austerity measures.
"The prime minister did not know. I was operating on my own initiative as a mediator for the good of the country," said the former aide, insisting his aim had been solely to "dislodge" the thousands of Greeks who had voted for Golden Dawn.
"The 500,000 Greeks who voted for Golden Dawn are not Nazis … and for the good of the country someone had to meet with these people," he told a local radio station, adding that "very possibly" other secretly recorded meetings would also come to light. "I told them what they wanted to hear so I could win their trust."
But with only weeks before European and local elections – and Samaras' parliamentary majority whittled down to one following an exodus of support over unpopular budget reforms – many predict a loss of votes for his fragile two-party coalition.
Pasok, the government's centre-left junior partner, issued a statement demanding that the conservatives' ties "with neo-Nazis, racists and the extreme right be revealed and punished".
Hungary election: Viktor Orbán's party expected to win second landslide
Incumbent PM has tinkered with the constitution to favour his Fidesz party, and even built a stadium in his home village
Daniel Nolan in Felcsút
theguardian.com, Thursday 3 April 2014 16.00 BST
When Hungary's populist leader, Viktor Orbán, swept the board in national and local elections four years ago, few towns resisted his self-proclaimed "polling booth revolution". One interesting exception, however, was the prime minister's hometown of Felcsút: a tiny, impoverished village of 1,700 residents 25 miles west of Budapest.
But Felcsút didn't hold out for long. Orbán soon replaced the mayor, György Varga, with his own man and built a 3.8bn forint (£10.3m) football stadium, which is to open later this month.
"This stadium will seat more people than there are villagers in Felcsút," says Zoltán Somogyi, an analyst at the thinktank Political Capital.
Welcome to the Hungary of Viktor Orbán, the country's dominant politician and prime minister since 2010 with the biggest majority of any EU leader. Orbán's Fidesz party, which has more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament, faces a re-election contest on Sunday. But in truth the only question is how much they win by.
Orbán has faced constant accusations of undemocratic tendencies throughout his term. Fidesz rewrote the constitution without consultation, and have already amended it five times. The opposition say Fidesz have turned state media into government mouthpieces. They have altered electoral rules and constituency boundaries to improve their chances of re-election still further. They have awarded corporate tax breaks to football funding, which has covered 70% of the cost of Orbán's stadium in Felcsút. And, critics say, they look after their own.
The Felcsút example is a neat microcosm. The new arena is unfeasibly large, dwarfing Felcsút's one-storey buildings. Locals have taken to calling it Sauron's Castle, in a reference to Tolkien. Visitors are not welcome yet, however; the project has a special classified status and the building site just off the village's main road is zealously guarded.
The village's new mayor, Lörinc Mészáros, has seen his own fortunes rise in tandem with those of the village. He heads the nearby Ferenc Puskás football academy, which was worth 150,000 forints in 2004, but now has assets of over 6bn forints. Mészáros's personal wealth has similarly rocketed, to the extent that he was a new entry on Hungary's top 100 rich list in 2013. Little of that money has filtered down to the local residents, however. In fact Felcsút has "underprivileged village" status and still applies each year for 15m forints in special government aid to cover its energy bills.
Krisztina Ferenczi, an investigative journalist who has just published Narancsbör ("Orange Peel"), a book about Orbán's finances, says Mészáros's job is to enforce Orbán's will in Felcsút. "He governs over 600 jobs in the village, they are totally dependent on him. Everybody has to eat from Mészáros's hands because every business is connected to him. If you are not on good terms with him, you are ruined."
"Orbán is building a system whereby education is irrelevant and it's all about which family you are born into. They look down on poor people, as if it is a sin to be punished for. All their laws reflect that."
Orbán has similarly remade the political and legal system, so that when Hungarians go to the polls on Sunday it will be to vote in a hugely altered electoral system.
Hungarians vote for both a local constituency MP and on a party-list system for regional representatives, and one new law, for example, allows Hungary's system of "compensation seats" to be granted even to the winner of a single-member constituency.
Election analyst Róbert László says the changes always seem to tip the balance towards Fidesz. "Whether Hungary is still a democracy is not a yes or no question, but the direction is wrong," he says. "There are so many elements to the new laws that benefit Fidesz.
"Compensating the losing candidate is absolutely logical in a mixed electoral system of single member mandates and party lists. Compensating the winner is absolutely illogical and goes against this principle. But the Fidesz politicians say that every vote counts only once, and technically that's true."
But he draws the line at comparisons with the "managed democracies" that are all the rage further east. "I don't think we are in a Russia-like situation," he says. "I think the election will be free but not fair."
Orbán's political life has been entwined with football from the start, and the holders of Hungary's three highest offices once played in the same five-a-side team: president János Áder, house speaker László Köver and Orbán himself.
But Orbán's penchant for moving the goalposts is not confined to footballing and political arenas. Some see a creeping attempt to own words and cultural icons. Fidesz' nationalisation of tobacco shops has now resulted in the word "Nemzeti" (national) on every street corner. Plans to build a memorial to the German occupation have upset Jewish groups, who saw it as a rewriting of history.
"Its like the old saying: Hungary belongs to the Hungarians. Yes, this is part of the plan. The government lays claim to lots of things they consider 'national'," says Somogyi.
The leader of the opposition repeatedly refers to Orbán as "the Felcsútian Maradona". Somogyi has a different analogy. He says Hungary's prime minister would have made a great football manager, but "Orbán likes to change the rules of the game. He has at least 14 players on the field, including two goalkeepers, and the referee is his best friend."
Turkey lifts Twitter ban after court ruling
Two-week-old ban is lifted after Turkey's constitutional court rules that it breaches freedom of expression laws
Reuters in Ankara
theguardian.com, Thursday 3 April 2014 15.53 BST
Turkey's telecoms authority lifted a two-week-old ban on Twitter on Thursday, after the constitutional court ruled the previous day that the block breached freedom of expression, a spokesman from the office of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said.
Access to Twitter was blocked in the runup to last Sunday's local elections after a stream of leaked recordings of senior officials appeared on the site.
Turkey's Official Gazette published the court's ruling on Thursday morning, further piling pressure on the telecoms authority, TIB, to lift the ban. TIB removed court orders blocking the site from its webpage on Thursday afternoon, after which Erdoğan's office confirmed the ban was no more.
YouTube however remains offline in Turkey. The TIB blocked it one week after blocking Twitter. Legal challenges are pending.
Following the constitutional court's decision, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, who has opposed the bans, was quoted as saying both websites should be made available. Twitter, which is based in San Francisco, said in a tweet that it welcomed the ruling.
Within minutes of the Twitter ban being lifted, the site was flooded with messages, with one user saying: "Welcome back to Twitter, Turkey."
The lifting of the ban means that the TIB will instruct Turkey's internet providers to unblock access to the site, a process likely to take several hours.
Erdoğan's critics saw the ban as the latest in a series of authoritarian measures to crush a corruption scandal that has grown into one of the biggest challenges of his 11-year rule.
Tech-savvy Turks quickly found workarounds, with internet analysts reporting a surge in tweets since the ban was imposed, but the issue has become a tug-of-war between Erdoğan's administration and Twitter.
The US state department had responded to the court ruling by urging Ankara to respect the decision and end the ban.
Erdoğan has repeatedly dismissed the leaked tapes – which point to wrongdoing by officials and members of his inner circle – as fabrication, and part of a political plot against him.
Taliban Extend Ceasefire, Ask Pakistan to Meet Demands
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 11:01
The Pakistani Taliban on Friday extended a ceasefire by six days to allow the government more time to meet their demands of releasing "non-combatant" prisoners and pulling back soldiers, the militia said in a statement.
The government began negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) through intermediaries in February to try to end the Islamists' bloody seven-year insurgency.
"We announce to extend the ceasefire till April 10 and TTP directs all Mujahedin to suspend their actions against government and security forces," spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said in a statement.
"Once again with full responsibility and seriousness TTP awaits a positive response from the government," he said and added that "despite the lapse of three days in ceasefire there was a mysterious silence on government side".
Shahid said that the umbrella militant group had only demanded the release of what they called "non-combatant" prisoners and the establishment of a "peace zone" where security forces would not be present.
Last month the Taliban handed over a list of 300 people including women, children, and old men.
"If our demands are not met, a meeting of our Shura (council) will be convened to decide future course of action," Shahid said.
On Wednesday, the government handed over 19 tribesmen based in South Waziristan, calling them "non-combatant Taliban prisoners".
But Shahid denied the men had been sought by the group or were its members.
On March 26 a four-member government committee comprising three civil servants and a former diplomat held their first meeting with members of the TTP's political council in North Waziristan tribal district.
Both sides met in Islamabad for a meeting chaired by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan amid growing speculation that the negotiations had ended in a deadlock.
There have been suggestions that high-profile figures held by the militants, including the son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, could be freed in return.
The peace talks were a key campaign pledge for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before he was elected to office for a third time last year.
But some analysts have voiced skepticism about their chances for success, given the Taliban's demands for nation wide sharia law and a withdrawal of troops from the lawless tribal zones.
Regional deals struck in the past between the military and the Taliban have failed and some have accused the militants of using them as a means to regroup and rearm.
Karzai Is Trying to Keep His Sway After Term Ends
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
APRIL 3, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — American officials have ignored him, and Afghanistan’s presidential contenders have tried to persuade voters that they will be different from him. But those hoping to see President Hamid Karzai slip into a quiet retirement may be disappointed in the months to come.
On Saturday, Afghans will vote in a presidential election that Mr. Karzai has shaped at every stage. He narrowed the candidate field, dissuading potential candidates from entering the race and forcing his brother Qayum to leave it. He handpicked the officials who will preside over any election disputes.
Then he blessed two of the three leading contenders with tens of thousands of dollars from his office’s slush funds, hedging his bets that at least one candidate open to his influence will make it to a runoff, according to senior Afghan officials. It may be well into June before that second vote can be held, and Mr. Karzai will remain president in the meantime.
Few who know Mr. Karzai personally, including some of his critics, see a naked power grab in the president’s maneuvering. They say Mr. Karzai is driven by a deep-seated belief that he is Afghanistan’s indispensable man, uniquely suited to guide the country through the tumultuous years of transition ahead. That starts with the election, but Mr. Karzai’s ultimate aim, the officials say, is to retain influence with the new Afghan administration.
Before Saturday’s presidential election, Afghan candidates campaigned under tight security amid worries of violence and voter fraud.
On the one hand, Mr. Karzai, who is 56, “wants to leave a legacy and be judged as a true statesman who transferred power peacefully for the first time in Afghanistan,” said Daud Muradian, a former foreign policy adviser to the president who now teaches at the American University of Afghanistan. “At the same time, he is being pulled by his Machiavellian side, and he wants to remain relevant in Afghan politics and be the power behind the next president.”
That may be bad news for Obama administration officials who basically gave up on working with Mr. Karzai after he refused to sign a security deal that would allow American troops to stay past 2014. The leading candidates have all promised to sign the deal if elected, but until then, the United States’ relationship with Mr. Karzai is not over — and he has shown little inclination to hide his disdain.
Late last month, he suddenly took a stance on the Russian annexation of Crimea that directly contradicted the American one: He openly praised the takeover in a fit of pique after seeing reports that the United States might give Pakistan some of the military equipment being shipped out of Afghanistan, senior Afghan officials said.
They say Mr. Karzai saw in the reports new evidence of duplicity by an ally that he believes has undermined him for years. He was against the troop surge, he felt betrayed by American efforts to unseat him in the 2009 election and, more recently, he has come to believe that the United States is in league with Pakistan, and by extension the Taliban.
The ill will is shared by many American officials, who see Mr. Karzai as an unreliable ingrate. But as much as they would prefer to see his influence end, the Americans are still counting on him in one respect: Some hope he can help mediate what is expected to be a messy aftermath of an election season in which candidates have already accused one another of planning to commit fraud and have pledged not to accept the results if they lose.
In a televised speech on Thursday night, Mr. Karzai urged Afghans to work together no matter what the result of the election is.
“Expressing different and opposing views during the election campaign is one of the principles of democracy,” he said. “But I am sure that once the election campaign is over, the candidates will respect people’s votes, prioritize the national interest, and will accept the legitimate results of the election.”
The president’s advisers insist that Mr. Karzai is abiding by that philosophy himself, and that he has let the competing factions within his government support whomever they prefer.
The new first vice president he just appointed, for example, supports the candidate whom Mr. Karzai’s aides say he is most opposed to seeing elected: Abdullah Abdullah, his opponent in the 2009 vote. The aides and several other officials interviewed about Mr. Karzai spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president.
A wide array of Western officials concede that Mr. Karzai has allowed a real electoral race to unfold once he helped set the field. But he employed every facet of his influence in shaping that early stage of the campaign, and even seemingly casual asides from the president had telling effects on candidacies over the past year.
After Farooq Wardak, the education minister and an early favorite to become an eventual front-runner, hurt his leg during a trip to the provinces last spring, Mr. Karzai told him in front of the entire cabinet, “That’s what you get when you run too fast to be president,” according to a senior Afghan official who heard the remark.
Mr. Wardak chose to stay out of the race.
Even those who had Mr. Karzai’s implicit blessing found they had to tread carefully. When Zalmay Rassoul, who was the foreign minister, began trying to sell himself to potential backers by distancing himself from Mr. Karzai, the president responded by luring away some of Mr. Rassoul’s potential running mates.
Mr. Karzai directed the most prominent of them, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord who could potentially deliver hundreds of thousands of votes, to join the camp of a rival presidential candidate, Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat who holds a doctorate from Columbia.
“What are you doing going with that old man?” — meaning Mr. Rassoul — Mr. Karzai told Mr. Dostum, according to the senior Afghan official. Mr. Ghani “can get you out of that human rights problem,” a reference to accusations by rights groups that Mr. Dostum had been involved in mass killings.
Mr. Karzai then gave Mr. Ghani $40,000 in cash to seed his campaign war chest and did the same for Mr. Rassoul, with whom he had made peace, two senior Afghan officials said. Both candidates are now considered leading contenders going into Saturday’s election.
Mr. Karzai offered no such deal to his elder brother, Qayum, fearing that the election of another Karzai would tarnish his legacy. Instead, he engaged in a bit of classic Karzai maneuvering to end his brother’s candidacy, orchestrating a meeting of ethnic Pashtun elders, who, after some initial drama, dutifully recommended that the president’s brother join the Rassoul camp.
Officials close to the president say that over the past month, Mr. Karzai has been notably more relaxed. His brother’s bowing out was one point of relief, and the other, they say, came after he began having to deal with Americans less. Since he rejected the Obama administration’s pressure to sign the security deal, visits by American officials have slowed to a trickle, pleasing him immensely.
“There are things he has decided in his mind,” said Umar Daudzai, the interior minister and Mr. Karzai’s former chief of staff. “When you are not sure, you are not relaxed.”
Officials said he had started spending more time with his three children, including his newborn daughter. And he spent whole days micromanaging the preparation of his new secure compound next to the presidential palace, the officials said, fixating on details like what kind of doorknobs to install.
But he still has his eyes set on the work ahead, the Afghan officials said, and his ideal role would be to work with the next administration by doing what he does best: presiding over meetings with elders, villagers and power brokers of all stripes, helping keep the country together. He could also focus on trying to persuade the Taliban to talk peace.
Until then, Afghans will see “the same Karzai we’ve seen for as long as he’s been President Karzai,” one former adviser said. “It’s going to be his government to the end. And no one’s going to be surprised if it’s his government after.”
India Court Orders First Death Sentences for Multiple Rapes
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 14:52
An Indian judge on Friday ordered three men to hang after they were convicted of two gang-rapes, the first death sentences to be handed down for multiple sex attacks since the law was toughened last year.
The sentences were announced at a court in Mumbai for the two attacks in July and August last year at the same abandoned mill compound in the city, including an attack on a photographer that made global headlines.
Mohammed Salim Ansari, 28, Vijay Mohan Jadhav, 19, and Mohammed Kasim Hafeez Shaikh, 21 were convicted last month after a fast-track trial.
They were subsequently handed life sentences for one of those assaults, the gang-rape of an 18-year-old phone operator.
But they were also convicted this week under a new section of the law for being repeat rape offenders, which carries the death penalty.
"There needs to be zero tolerance for such incidents," Judge Shalini Phansalkar Joshi said as she announced the sentences.
"A loud and clear message needs to be sent to society."
Special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam confirmed to AFP that this was the first such conviction under the modified law.
Indian election official calls for calm debate ahead of huge poll
One of three commissioners overseeing world's biggest democratic exercise pleads with candidates to rein in emotions
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Thursday 3 April 2014 17.43 BST
Senior Indian election officials have called on candidates in the nation's elections to avoid emotional outbursts as an increasingly acrimonious campaign reaches its climax.
The first of more than 800 million eligible voters will cast their ballots at 930,000 polling stations on Monday in the first phase of an election that will last for more than six weeks.
The election has been described by analysts as the most important for decades. It pits the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), against Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of the country's most famous political dynasty and the face of the Congress party, which is seeking a third term in power. A series of polls have put Modi and the BJP ahead.
Harishankar Brahma, one of three commissioners charged with overseeing the biggest democratic exercise in the world, said that "as the really hot campaign will start, it will be more active and aggressive".
"We are saying please do not get too emotional, or do outbursts or conduct or behaviour that would not be appreciated by others," Brahma told the Guardian.
In recent weeks, Modi has implied that Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, put the interests of her native land before those of India during a recent diplomatic dispute, referred to Rahul Gandhi, her son, as a "little prince" and accused Arvind Kejriwal, who leads the anti-establishment, anti-corruption Aam Admi (Common Man) party, of being an "agent" of India's hostile neighbour Pakistan.
Earlier this week, a BJP member of a local state assembly said the Gandhis should be stripped and thrown out of the country, while a Congress party candidate was charged with inciting hate after threatening to "cut Modi into little pieces".
Another Congress candidate was arrested on Thursday on charges of vandalising Modi posters.
Sharad Pawar, a veteran politician, has been criticised for calling Modi "mentally ill".
Brahma, who said 99% of candidates observed the "gentleman's agreement" known as the Model Code, which guides their behaviour during the campaign, said the primary concern of the commission was security.
"The biggest problem is ensuring there is no trouble, no violence anywhere in the country, that law and order is maintained and the least disruption, or none at all, no disaster natural or man-made. We want peace and tranquility," he said.
During the campaign and voting, the commission has authority over India's massive bureaucracy and police force. Between 25 and 30 districts, mainly in the centre of the country, are vulnerable to leftwing extremism, while others in the north-east and in the disputed Himalayan former princedom of Kashmir threatened by separatist violence. Around 8 million policemen will be deployed during the election to ensure security.
A major effort to boost turnout – historically around 55% in Indian national elections – could result in up to 65% of eligible voters casting ballots, Brahma said.
Between 120-150 million first-time voters are eligible to vote in the polls.
Chetan Bhagat, a bestselling author known for recounting the trials of life for India's young adults, said there was "a lot more awareness, ambition and outlets for [young people] to express themselves" now.
"There is a sizable demographic of the educated, young Indian middle class and they are connected through social media as well as the mainstream content they consume … However, they do not yet have adequate political power to be really empowered. They have started to make a noise and get heard. They are still not fully in control," Bhagat told the Guardian.
Opinion polls have shown young people broadly backing the BJP. The party is not expected to win an outright majority however, underlining the growing support for regional parties. It is now three decades since any party won more than half of the seats in parliament.
However, if attention is focused on big northern states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, analysts say it is Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu, who could eventually decide the victor. She is riding a wave of popularity that could take her AIADMK party's seat count to 27 in the 545 seat lower house, according to one survey. Jayalalithaa's exact intentions are unknown but she has told her supporters it is time for a change in New Delhi.
One Congress minister and veteran politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted earlier this week that the party's campaign was now aimed less at retaining power and more at simply "stopping The Man", a reference to Modi.
Modi came from humble origins to win power in the western state of Gujarat before being projected on to the national stage. Critics see him as an authoritarian extremist who, when chief minister in 2002, allegedly allowed or encouraged mobs to attack Muslims in towns across Gujarat after a lethal fire supposedly started by Muslims on a train full of Hindu pilgrims. Modi denied the charges and investigators cleared him of any direct involvement in the violence, but his reputation still concerns many, particularly among India's large Muslim population.
Others, including some of the most powerful industrialists in India, say Modi is an honest and decisive administrator who has introduced policies that have encouraged development in his state and could be reproduced elsewhere if he were prime minister.
Modi is competing from two seats, including the holy city of Varanasi. There he will confront Kejriwal, of the Aam Admi party (AAP). The AAP released its manifesto on Thursday, which promised tough action against graft, a citizen's charter to punish slow or incompetent officials, radical devolution of power to village level and wide-ranging police reforms.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
As Narendra Modi Rises, His Grip Over His Party Tightens
By VAIBHAV VATS
April 3, 2014, 9:19 am
NEW DELHI — On Monday, Lal Krishna Advani, the doyen and one of the founders of India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, spoke at a rally in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Mr. Advani observed that Narendra Modi, the party’s prime ministerial candidate and thrice-elected chief minister of Gujarat, was not “the only one who has scored a hat trick in elections.”
“Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh have also been elected thrice like him,” he said, referring to the chief ministers of the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh respectively.
News and analysis on the world’s largest election.
The surprise was not in what Mr. Advani said – his discomfort with Mr. Modi’s rise is well known – but the fact that he was alone on the dais. No top leader from the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., bothered to join him as he canvassed support for a local member of Parliament, and even prominent state leaders stayed away.
A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable for Mr. Advani to be campaigning by himself, but his isolation reflected how far the tide had shifted from the party’s old guard and toward Mr. Modi, who has made it increasingly clear to party members who is in charge.
Mr. Advani’s comments came a couple of days after Jaswant Singh, another senior leader of the B.J.P., was expelled from the party. Mr. Singh’s expulsion appeared inevitable once he decided to run as an independent candidate after being denied a party ticket in his home constituency of Barmer in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.
A week prior to his expulsion, Mr. Singh, a former finance and foreign minister, had sobbed publicly in a dramatic television interview. Particularly hurt that the party ticket in his home constituency had been given to a defector from the governing Congress Party, Mr. Singh said there had been “an encroachment on the principles and ideologies of the B.J.P.”
“We have to decide between the real B.J.P. and the fake B.J.P.,” he said.
The denouement of Mr. Advani and Mr. Singh were prominent examples of a wider purge within the B.J.P., set in motion by the growing clout of Mr. Modi.
Soon after Mr. Advani revolted and insisted that he pick his own parliamentary race, Harin Pathak, a loyalist of Mr. Advani and a seven-time member of Parliament from Ahmedabad, the largest city in Mr. Modi’s home state of Gujarat, was denied a ticket.
Murli Manohar Joshi, a former education minister and the sitting member of Parliament from Varanasi, was forced to give up his seat for Mr. Modi to contest. Mr. Joshi briefly expressed reluctance at the prospect but — perhaps shrewdly realizing the power shift within the party — quickly caved in.
These moves of Mr. Modi’s power consolidation over the party follow his record in Gujarat, where he has been chief minister for more than 12 years. In his home state, Mr. Modi has sidelined the entire senior leadership of the party and effectively rendered them politically irrelevant. Using his near-unchallenged authority in the state, Mr. Modi has not allowed any other leader from his own party to gain prominence.
The historian Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s leading public intellectuals, wrote in The Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata that Mr. Modi’s habit of accumulating power was worrying. “As a leader of both party and government, Modi’s tendency is to centralize and self-aggrandize. These traits are not entirely becoming in a prospective prime minister of a large and diverse country.”
“Listening to Modi speak, one is struck by how first person pronouns predominate — variants of I, me, myself, mine,” Mr. Guha wrote.
Aakar Patel, a prominent commentator on Mr. Modi, has described him as a “one-man cabinet.” Writing in The Mint newspaper, Mr. Patel noted that, as chief minister of Gujarat, Mr. Modi “was at one time personally holding the portfolios for finance, home, industries, ports, energy, mines and minerals and administration besides others. Modi said he needed to, because nobody else was good enough, and that he was delivering.”
Given Mr. Modi’s prior record, the purge of senior leaders is an ominous sign for the B.J.P.’s middle-rung leadership. In a political landscape dominated by dynasties and regional satraps, where the word of the leader becomes law, the B.J.P. remained one of the few parties with some semblance of inner-party democracy.
However, in an electoral campaign where Mr. Modi’s presence dwarfs that of his party, Mr. Modi is cleverly using the B.J.P’s overt dependence on him to eliminate and sideline all rival power camps within the party. The purge also serves as a message to other remaining leaders that Mr. Modi will not tolerate any dissent to his authority.
In his speeches, Mr. Modi has regularly attacked Rahul Gandhi, the vice president of the Congress Party and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as a “shehzada,” meaning “the prince.” Mr. Modi has alleged that Mr. Gandhi’s whims and moods often overrode the due processes of his party and government.
But the purge of the B.J.P.’s senior leadership is an unmistakable sign that, like the Congress Party, which Mr. Modi derides and ridicules as undemocratic and sycophantic, the B.J.P., too, is succumbing to the diktats of its unswerving leader.
S. Korea Summons Japan Ambassador over Territorial Claim
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 08:43
South Korea summoned the Japanese ambassador Friday over what it saw as a fresh move by Japan to stake its claim to a disputed set of tiny islets and promote its stance in school text books.
The foreign ministry called in ambassador Koro Bessho to formally convey its protest over a section in Japan's newly released foreign policy report "Diplomatic Bluebook 2014".
The report, drafted every year by the Japanese foreign ministry, identified the disputed islets -- known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese -- as Japanese territory.
It also vowed intensified efforts to have the dispute over the South Korean-controlled islets settled by international law.
"Our government expresses strong regret at Japan's outrageous claim on our indigenous territory, Dokdo," Seoul's foreign ministry said in a statement.
Japan's repeated claim will not only "severely" damage bilateral ties, but threaten peace and security in Northeast Asia, the statement said.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are currently at their lowest ebb for years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, including the islet dispute.
The foreign ministry also warned Japan to scrap plans to revise school textbooks to strengthen its historical claim to the rocky outcrops in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
"The path for mending South Korea-Japan ties will become longer if the Japanese government continues its provocations regarding Dokdo," it said.
Japan must know its next generation will be isolated further in the international community if school education distorts and conceals the history of its "past imperialistic aggression", the ministry said.
Tokyo brushed off the complaint, saying Japan's territorial disputes with South Korea and China would be referenced in all elementary school textbooks from next April.
"It's a matter of course to teach our students about an integral part of our territory," Japanese Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura said.
The latest spat comes ahead of a planned Asia trip by U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has become increasingly frustrated with the incessant sniping between its two major Asian allies.
Three weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye met in The Hague in a summit hosted by Obama.
Tokyo said the meeting had provided an opportunity for Abe and Park to build a rapport, but Seoul's verdict was far cooler.
South Korea Tests Missile Bringing Entire North in Range
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 07:16
South Korea said Friday it had successfully test-fired a new ballistic missile capable of carrying a one-tonne payload to any part of North Korea.
The launch was carried out March 23, just two days before North Korea test fired two medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan.
The announcement of the test is likely to fuel the current tensions on the Korean peninsula which saw the two rivals fire hundreds of live shells into each other's territorial waters earlier this week.
The new South Korean missile, capable of carrying a one-tonne payload up to 500 kilometers (310 miles), was developed under an agreement reached in 2012 with the United States to almost triple the range of the South's ballistic missile systems.
The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea and guarantees a nuclear "umbrella" in case of any atomic attack.
In return, Seoul accepts limits on its missile capabilities and had previously operated under a range and payload ceiling of 300 kilometers and 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).
Given the ambitions of nuclear-armed North Korea's own missile program, the South had long argued for the limits to be extended.
The 2012 agreement, which was denounced as a provocation by Pyongyang, allows the South to deploy missiles with a maximum range of 800 kilometers.
While the maximum payload for that range remains 500 kilograms, the two parameters are inversely linked, so that for shorter ranges corresponding payload increases are allowed.
Just one month ago, inter-Korean relations appeared to be enjoying something of a thaw.
In February the two rivals had rare, high-level talks, after which they held the first reunion in more than three years for families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Even when annual South Korean-U.S. military exercises began at the end of February, the protests from Pyongyang were relatively muted, and there was talk of further high-level meetings and greater cooperation.
But the mood soon soured, and recent weeks have seen North Korea conduct a series of rocket and missile tests, culminating last month in the test-firing of the two medium-range ballistic missiles.
On Monday, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill along the disputed maritime border. After some shells crossed the boundary, South Korea responded and the two sides fired hundreds of artillery rounds into each other's waters.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un warned this week that the situation on the peninsula was "very grave" and vowed to "thoroughly crush" what he called a U.S.-engineered policy of hostility.
Report: China under Australian Wing in Military Drill
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 07:09
China has asked to operate under Australian command when it takes part in a major international military exercise led by the United States later this year, a report said Friday.
Beijing's reported decision comes as Australia leads the arduous Indian Ocean search for missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 which was carrying 153 Chinese when it vanished.
The Sydney Morning Herald said it understood that the request from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) was expressed through defense channels last week, without quoting any sources.
Until recent years China rarely took part in international military exercises and the newspaper said it was the first time the PLA would operate under Western command in such a drill.
Australia's Defense Minister David Johnston would not comment on the Chinese position but has welcomed China's involvement in the Rim of the Pacific exercise which involves more than 20 nations.
"China has a central role to play in contributing to regional stability," his office said in a statement.
"We welcome the positive contributions it has made to date, and look forward to continuing to work together to enhance mutual understanding and facilitate transparency, and build trust throughout the region."
The RIMPAC exercise will be led by the US and involve more than 25,000 personnel. In the previous RIMPAC in 2012, Australia led the maritime component of the war game, coordinating some 40 ships and six submarines.
It is not known which countries besides the US will take leadership roles this year, but nations taking part include China's traditional rival Japan.
The report on China's request comes as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is preparing for his first visit to the country since becoming leader last September, a trip which also includes Japan and South Korea.
China is Australia's biggest trading partner and Abbott is pushing for the completion of a free trade deal with the Asian giant but ties have been complicated by Canberra's opposition to China's air defense zone over East China Sea islands claimed by Beijing and Tokyo.
Australia summoned China's ambassador to voice opposition to the Air Defense Identification Zone, earning a strong rebuke from Beijing.
The United States invited China to take part in RIMPAC in 2012 as it tried to reassure Beijing over its strategic "pivot" to the Pacific.
The latest round of the international maritime exercises, described by the U.S. Navy as the world's largest, will take place in July around the Hawaiian Islands.
Australia Eyes Cambodia as Asylum-seeker Host
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 08:05
Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made an unannounced visit to Cambodia on Friday, raising speculation that Phnom Penh will join Papua New Guinea and Nauru in helping resettle asylum-seekers.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said talks between Morrison and Cambodian officials represented the countries "staying in touch" as partners against people-smuggling.
"Whether Cambodia were to accept people is really a matter for Cambodia, but the point is people-smuggling is a regional problem," he told reporters.
"It needs to be dealt with in a regional way and any support and cooperation that other countries can give to Australia is obviously very welcome."
Australia has adopted a hardline policy against asylum-seekers arriving on unauthorized boats as it seeks to control its maritime borders and stop would-be refugees from drowning at sea.
Under the policy, boatpeople have been sent to camps on remote Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island in the Pacific for processing and denied resettlement in Australia.
"We're very pleased to have been getting the support from PNG and from Nauru that we've had and we look forward to further support from other countries in our region, including from Cambodia," Abbott said.
Refugee advocates and the Australian Greens have criticized the government's policy, which includes turning back boats and has resulted in no new boat arrivals for more than 100 days.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused the government of "looking for the next poor country to dump" refugees in embarking on discussions with Cambodia.
"No one in their right mind believes that Minister Morrison is doing anything beyond wiping Australia's hands of our international responsibilities," she told ABC radio.
So far no asylum-seekers in Manus have been resettled as refugees in PNG, but Morrison said on Thursday that this process was expected to begin in June.
"Those persons found not to be refugees will be held in detention in PNG pending removal to their home country or another country where they have a right of entry," Morrison said in a joint statement with his PNG counterpart Rimbink Pato.
Third gender must be recognised by NSW after Norrie wins legal battle
Norrie applied for non-recognition of gender in 2010 after surgery in 1989
theguardian.com, Wednesday 2 April 2014 04.56 BST
The Australian high court has ruled that New South Wales must recognise a third gender after handing down its decision in the long-running case of Norrie, who has been fighting since 2010 to have a sex change recognised as non-specific.
Norrie, who was identified as male at birth, had applied for a name change and “non-specific” gender in 2010, having not identified as either sex since gender reassignment surgery in Scotland in 1989.
The NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages revoked its earlier decision in support of Norrie’s application, and Norrie took it to the court of appeal in 2012. The court found in Norrie’s favour but the registrar appealed to the high court.
Norrie’s legal team argued that to force Norrie to identify as either male or female when Norrie belonged in neither specification would maintain a fiction.
Among the arguments of the registrar was that it would cause “unacceptable confusion” if state legislation, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 (NSW), were to recognise more than two genders. The high court rejected the argument.
The Australian Capital Territory is currently the only Australian jurisdiction to recognise a third category of gender, although commonwealth-issued passports do.
The five-judge panel of the high court ruled unanimously, in what Norrie’s lawyer, Scott McDonald of DLA Piper, said was a rare fast turnaround.
“The question in this appeal is whether it was within the registrar's power to record in the register that the sex of the respondent, Norrie, was 'not specific',” the high court said. “That question should be answered in the affirmative.”
Norrie said it was a “great outcome” particularly that it happened so quickly and applies Australia-wide, not just in NSW.
“Maybe people will understand there’s more options than the binary,” Norrie told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday. “Even if an individual might be male or female their friends might not be.”
Of the personal toll the four-year fight had taken, Norrie joked: “It was swings and roundabouts, but I’m on Wikipedia now. And these people have done the hard work. I didn’t have to stand up in court.”
Norrie added: “It’s important for people to have equal rights in society. Why should people be left out because they’re seen as not male or female? They should be recognised wherever they are and allowed to participate in society at an equal level.”
The ruling will affect some states that have similarly worded legislation to NSW. “A couple of states have similar legislation – Victoria and Queensland. WA has quite different legislation,” McDonald said. “It won’t be binding [there]. It will have persuasive authority.
“To the extent it sent a message of what the high court expects, and that sex is not binary, I think that’s a message that can be felt through the states’ legislation on this issue.”
There are a number of countries around the world which recognise a third or non-specific gender beyond passports, including Germany and Nepal.
The court found the act does not require a person who has undergone a sex affirmation procedure and remains “of indeterminate sex” has to be registered as either male or female.
“The act itself recognises that a person may be other than male or female and therefore may be taken to permit the registration sought, as ‘non-specific’,” read the judgment.
The court also ordered the registrar to pay Norrie’s court costs.
U.S. to Meet Allies on N.Korea
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 21:21
The United States said Thursday it will meet next week with allies South Korea and Japan to plan strategy on North Korea amid high tensions after the regime's live-fire drills.
The U.S. pointman on North Korea, Glyn Davies, will meet Monday in Washington with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea, Junichi Ihara and Hwang Joon-Kook.
The talks will look at ways to seek "verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner," the State Department said in a statement.
North Korea in recent weeks has threatened a new nuclear test, test-fired medium-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan and, on Monday, conducted a live-fire drill along its disputed border with South Korea.
The three-way talks come after U.S. President Barack Obama met on the sidelines of a summit in The Netherlands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South President Park Geun-Hye, a breakthrough after friction between the two U.S. allies over historical disputes.
Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on human rights in North Korea, is also visiting South Korea and Japan this week amid growing calls for international action over the totalitarian state's treatment of its own people.
French Forces Move East in New Phase of C. Africa Operation
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 19:10
French forces deployed in the strife-torn Central African Republic began moving into the east of the country this week, the head of the operation General Francisco Soriano said Thursday.
"The third phase (of the intervention) began this week and we started deploying in the east," he told reporters in Paris during a video conference.
"The goal is to restore state authority, end the activities of armed groups and disarm them," he said.
The troops deployed in the former French colony in December to tackle unrest sparked by a March 2013 coup that led to violence between Christians and Muslims.
In the initial phase, during the first two months of the operation, French forces worked to secure the capital Bangui, before moving into the west of the vast country to control the major trade route to Cameroon.
Soriano said the third phase became possible after President Francois Hollande in February decided to send 400 more troops to CAR, bringing the total French force in the country to 2,000, who are working alongside about 6,000 African troops.
The European Union this week announced it was finally launching a delayed military mission to send 1,000 troops to CAR and Soriano said their arrival "will allow us to increase our deployment in the east and the north of the country."
Thousands have been killed in the violence and about a million people -- a quarter of the population -- have been forced from their homes.
Security Council: Darfur Peacekeeping Force Must Improve
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 06:58
The U.N. Security Council on Thursday demanded that its peacekeeping mission with the African Union improve its protection of civilians in the strife-torn Sudanese region of Darfur.
In a unanimous resolution, the council endorsed "revised strategic priorities" for the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
Among these are better protection of civilians and improved delivery of humanitarian aid.
In a resolution, the council requested that the mission "identify, in the context of these challenges, steps by which it will achieve its revised strategic priorities more effectively."
It added that the Security Council will assess "the initial impact of implementation" before renewing UNAMID's mandate in August.
UNAMID, which was established six years ago, currently has a force of about 20,000 on the ground.
Britain's ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said that the hybrid nature of UNAMID "has proved difficult" because every decision must go through two organizations.
"The security situation has always been difficult," said Grant. "The mission needs to be better able to address the current situation."
The U.N. says that at the end of March about 200,000 people were newly displaced by fighting in Darfur, on top of about two million who had already been uprooted in the 11-year conflict.
Obama Clears Way for Sanctions on S. Sudan Rights Abusers
by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 April 2014, 06:57
President Barack Obama cleared the way Thursday for U.S. sanctions against anyone on either side of South Sudan's civil war who targets U.N. peacekeepers, threatens peace moves or abuses human rights.
The president issued an executive order allowing the use of property and asset seizures and immigration and visa bans against government or rebel officials who are judged at a later date to have transgressed.
The move comes several weeks after the United States and the European Union warned of sanctions if President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar did not make progress in peace talks and adhere to a ceasefire deal.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement that fighting between the two sides threatened to tear their young nation apart.
"The United States will not stand by as those entrusted with South Sudan's future put their own interests above those of their people," Carney said.
The Executive Order threatens sanctions against those who compromise peace, or who risk the security or stability of South Sudan or who obstruct the peace process, target UN peacekeepers or who are guilty of human rights abuses.
"Both the Government of South Sudan and Riek Machar's rebels must immediately engage in and follow through on the inclusive peace process led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and resolve this conflict," Carney said.
"They must end military actions and hold accountable those responsible for violence against civilians.
"The people of South Sudan are calling for peace. There is no room for excuses or delay."
Peace talks mediated by the East African IGAD-bloc between the government and rebels have made little progress.
South Sudan's government has been at war with rebel groups since December 15, when a clash between troops loyal to Kiir and those loyal to sacked vice president Machar snowballed into full-scale fighting.
Despite the brutal suffering the war has caused -- displacing nearly one million people -- both sides have refused to lay down their arms, violating a ceasefire deal signed in January.
Obama administration diplomacy played a high profile role in the peace push that led to the partitioning of the two Sudans into two independent nations in 2011.
In the latest outburst of violence in South Sudan, thousands of people have been killed and more than 900,000 have been forced to flee their homes.