Europe's young democracies learn to speak less and listen more
Amid volatility, governments in south-east Europe are starting to use technology to involve people in policymaking
Vuk Vujnovic, Seecom
Guardian Professional, Tuesday 29 April 2014 09.35 BST
One of the biggest problems with government communications as a profession in general – and especially in the so-called young democracies of south-east Europe – is that more often than not it's not really about communication.
Getting one's message across is still widely seen as the holy grail of government comms. But communication should be a two-way activity, and simply broadcasting public policies like they're products inspires little public trust in government institutions.
In south-east Europe, mistrust of governments has frequently combined with instability, political divides and a lack of organisations through which citizens can make their voices heard. This has led to disengagement and indifference from citizens, civil unrest and even violent conflicts.
This is where government communicators should step in. In today's interconnected world communications professionals are required to play a fundamentally different role in their societies, one that goes far beyond making sure that public policies and policymakers look good in the press. At least that's what a group of government communicators gathered around South East Europe's Public Sector Communication Association (Seecom) like to believe.
Members of this network feel that good communication with citizens is essential in helping governments to create policies that are more attuned to people's needs, and that government communicators should make sure citizens' voices are heard when policies are made and implemented. Seecom helps government communicators from 13 countries in south-east Europe to share tips on how to make information on public policies more accessible, understandable and interesting to people, how to listen as much as they speak and how to engage people in policymaking.
It turns out that there are quite a few bright examples throughout the region to share and build on:
The defence ministry of Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, has decided to shed its traditional secretive aura and introduce an online platform, aimed at combating corruption in the security sector by harnessing the power of new technology and citizen engagement. Informants are able to track the outcome of their allegations online, while remaining anonymous to the authorities and the public.
Here cabinet ministers communicate with their constituents on Facebook. Moldova is also the birthplace of the engaging online game Youth@Work, which is designed to tackle youth unemployment by giving young people a chance to get together with employers and policymakers, give their input, debate issues and propose and secure funding for their own projects.
For its exceptionally active and responsive presence on social networks, the government of Croatia is dubbed the world's most communicative government by the Twiplomacy study.
An innovative digital diplomacy effort has put Kosovo on the world map by ensuring its digital presence across major websites around the world.
Here the government is using citizens' reports filed through the Be Responsible mobile app as a key asset in fighting the underground economy. Half the proceeds from fines is allocated to community projects proposed and voted on by citizens themselves.
Though the speed of transformation towards collaborative policymaking may not always be what civil society activists or citizens expect, these examples prove that meaningful citizen engagement through effective communication is not only possible in this part of Europe – it breeds better policies and helps to build much-needed social cohesion.
Pushing for this kind of change may well be the most vital social responsibility for public sector communicators in this volatile region, and Seecom's mission is to provide them with the leverage, skills and knowhow to fulfil this ambitious role.
Vuk Vujnovic is secretary general of Seecom
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The enemy invasion: Brussels braced for influx of Eurosceptics in EU polls
Special report: parties demanding everything from reform to withdrawal are riding high on wave on discontent, reports Jon Henley from Coulommiers, Erfurt and Helsinki
The Guardian, Monday 28 April 2014 15.10 BST
The Foire aux Fromages et aux Vins in Coulommiers, an attractive town on the undulating Brie plateau an hour east of Paris, is a fabulously French affair: a monumental marquee, hordes of happy visitors and more than 350 stalls laden with Gallic bounty.
Among the cheeses are tomme from Savoie, crottins de chèvre from Aveyron, and great roundels of brie from nearby Meaux, alongside case upon case of chablis, Pouilly-Fumé, Nuits-Saint-Georges. And today, in amiable conversation with a local cheesemaker, there is Aymeric Chauprade, academic, author, consultant, and leading candidate in the European elections for Marine Le Pen's freshly fumigated Front National.
Here's the problem, explains an immaculately suited Chauprade, who besides degrees in maths and international law has a doctorate in political science from the Sorbonne: all this – he gestures around him as the throng prods, nibbles, squeezes, swills and swallows – is at risk.
These artisan French foods, proud produce of our terroirs and all protected by Appellation d'Origine status, will soon be at the mercy of multinationals, under the new transatlantic trade and investment partnership the European Union is negotiating with the US.
"American farmers and 'big food' will rule; our regulations and standards will count for nothing," Chauprade continues. "This is an EU that has no respect for national specificities; it's an EU of bureaucrats, of ever greater normalisation, in the service of big banks and corporations. It is not the EU we want."
Understandably, this message plays well here. But not only here.
Across the EU, insurgent parties from right and left are poised to cause major upset, finishing at or near the top of their respective national votes. As a result, rejectionist parties look set to send their largest contingent of anti-European MEPs ever to the European parliament: perhaps 25% of the assembly's 751 members. (Down from 766 in the current parliament.)
Does this matter? Dominated by the mainstream centre-right European People's party and centre-left Socialists & Democrats, which between them almost always muster a "grand coalition" of nearly 500 loyally pro-European MEPs, and with much of its work consisting of complicated compromises cosily worked out with envoys from the EU's other decision-making bodies, the European parliament does not function much like other parliaments.
Nor, although it now has a greater say over many more areas of EU law than before, are many European voters yet convinced of its relevance: while it supposedly represents some 500 million people, voter turnout among the 28 member states has fallen steadily since the first ever elections in 1979, when 62% of the electorate turned out, to just 43% at the latest vote in 2009.
But the near-certain election in a few weeks of a very substantial minority of MEPs actively working to derail, or at the very least disrupt, the parliament's work passing EU laws could come to be seen as something of a defining moment in the European project.
"I think," says Juri Mykkänen, a political scientist at Helsinki University, "that there is a lot of potential for these elections to become some kind of turning point for Europe, in large part because of the populist parties. I think the established pro-European parties are going to have to start listening. This has to be seen as a signal that for a lot of people in Europe, the European Union has gone far enough in this direction."
Mykkänen's home country is a good case in point. Nervously sharing an 800-mile border with Russia, Finland had more reason to join the EU than most when it made the leap in 1995.
"For us, the EU actually offered a better chance of national sovereignty," Mykkänen says. "That's a big deal for us: we've only had it since 1917. Except it has been a false promise. Then there's the financial crisis, having to pay for other people's mistakes … Support for the EU is falling."
Capitalising on that growing sense of disillusion is the Finns party. In national elections in 2011, stealing votes from right and left, the Finns' fiscally leftwing but socially conservative and unashamedly nationalist platform – it supports the welfare state and marriage, and strongly opposes immigration – saw it capture nearly 40 seats in the Finnish parliament. Currently polling at about 18%, it could field up to a quarter of Finland's 13 MEPs.
"There's a vicious circle in the EU," says Jussi Halla-aho, one of its leading MPs and a European parliament candidate MEP, in a striking brick-and-glass annex of the Helsinki parliament. "Integration creates problems, so more integration is proposed to solve them."
Not that Europe is altogether "a hopeless case", he adds, his words chosen carefully. "It has tools and instruments that bring added value to everyone. I accept its existence. But it has to focus on the functions that are beneficial for everyone … and not on political integration. Political integration, in my view, does not serve the interests of the nation states that make the union."
If the Finns party is polling high on its anti-EU ticket, others are doing even better. The Front National, on about 24%, seems comfortably on course to win at least 20 of France's 74 seats. Nigel Farage's europhobic Ukip, which according to the most recent poll enjoys more than 30% support from those who say they will definitely vote, should also finish top or a close second, and seize a similar number of the UK's 73 seats.
In Denmark the anti-immigrant Danish People's party is ahead on 27%; Austria's Freedom party (FPO), which campaigns against "Islamisation", is on track for 20% of the vote; Geert Wilders' anti-EU, anti-Islam Freedom party (PVV) was leading in the Netherlands until its controversial founder triggered a public backlash – and several resignations – by publicly egging on people chanting against Moroccan immigrants. It could yet bounce back.
But anti-EU sentiment is not solely the preserve of the xenophobic, the nationalist, or even the somewhat socially conservative right. True, if parties such as the Front National are making strenuous efforts to ditch their past (and its young, highly qualified and personable candidates have now made the party most popular in France among 18- to 24-year-old voters), some anti-Europeans remain indelibly nasty.
With 18 seats in the Greek parliament, Golden Dawn may reject the neo-Nazi label, but its emblem bears a strong resemblance to the swastika, its leaders are prone to giving Nazi salutes, and six of its MPs are in jail accused of using the party to run a criminal gang.
Similarly, Hungary's Jobbik, which took 20% of the vote in April's general elections, may prefer the term "radical nationalist", but its ideology is so freighted with antisemitism, racism and homophobia that far-right groups in western Europe, including the Front National and the PVV, steer well clear.
As the continent struggles to emerge from its economic crisis, distrust and disillusion with Brussels are now fuelled by more than the spectres that have traditionally haunted the more thuggish elements of Europe's far right.
To older fears about loss of sovereignty, mass immigration and (more recently) the rise of Islam have been added an equally potent anger about bitter austerity, rampant unemployment and inequality – a cocktail that means contemporary Euroscepticism is alive across the political spectrum.
These Euro-insurgents appeal to people unsure about their own future, worried about where their country is going and whether they belong there, and doubtful that mainstream parties can or will do anything about it. With little sign of any real fall in unemployment or serious economic recovery, that's a lot of people.
Disillusion with the EU, certainly, is at record highs across the continent. The surveys are unequivocal: 60% of Europeans "tend not to trust" the EU now, against 32% in 2007; in 20 of the 28 member states a clear majority feels the EU is going "in the wrong direction"; for the first time, Eurosceptics outnumber supporters by 43% to 40%.
"In our analysis, the real turning point came in the late 1980s, when the big industrialists started laying down the plans for the future of Europe," says Dennis de Jong, a leading MEP from the impeccably leftwing but fiercely Euro-critical Dutch Socialist party. "Until that moment, the EU seemed like a logical post-war development. But industry, not ordinary people, has driven much of what's happened since, from opening internal borders to the euro. This EU – the EU of multinationals, of harmonisation – makes people uneasy. People like difference. They like identity."
Coming from a polar ideological opposite, the words bear a striking similarity to those used by the Front National. But left and right see eye to eye, too, in their verdict on Brussels.
Socialist De Jong says: "Power is concentrated there, and it is growing all the time – like every bureaucracy, Brussels feeds itself. And so every problem has to have a European solution."
And this is the Front National's Chauprade: "It's the bureaucrat's dream: a completely uniform, formatted Europe. Never mind that the EU was founded on the idea of subsidiarity, of no one telling anyone else what to do. It's hard for them to admit – they've devoted their lives to building it. But this EU is not serving its citizens."
Similar views prevail on the radical left in Greece, where Syriza could finish top of the European poll. The party has yet to translate into concrete European policies the fiercely anti-EU, anti-austerity message that made it the largest party in the Greek parliament in 2012, but it is unlikely that the eight or nine MEPs it could have will feel particularly warmly towards the European commission.
In Italy, too, comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment, anti-corruption and anti-euro Five Star Movement, consistently polling above 20%, could easily capture up to 20 of the country's 73 European parliament seats. It has promised to wade in and "shake up" Brussels.
"What we mean by that," explains Manlio di Stefano, a Five Star MP, "is that the EU has to return to its original concept. Not a union but a community, based on principles of solidarity and dignity. We are saying that we must renegotiate the Europe we have, or we cannot stay. We cannot exchange our people's dignity for an agreement to stay in Europe."
Perhaps most remarkably of all, pretty much the same anti-EU song – set to an only slightly different tune – is now being sung even in Germany.
In a cavernous conference centre on the outskirts of the handsome east German town of Erfurt last month, some 1,500 people gathered for the congress of Alternative für Deutschland. Formed barely a year ago by a mild-mannered professor of macroeconomics at Hamburg University, Germany's newest political organisation does not pull your usual protest-party crowd: there are college lecturers, lawyers, doctors, judges, academics, company directors. More than 70% have never been members of a political party before.
"We are the revolt of the reasonable people," says Frauke Petry, chemist, businesswoman and an AfD spokesperson. "We'd like to get back to the basics of the community. We think the EU has lost sight of its fundamental freedoms, with this never-ending harmonisation – for which Germans fear they will end up paying." (Germans have no problem with Greek civil servants wanting to retire at 50, she adds, as long as they do not have to meet the cost.)
Loss of identity
There's more, and it sounds quite familiar. "We think the commission is pulling more and more rights to Brussels," Petry says. "We think that while Germans are very, very patient, they are starting to feel they are losing their identity. And although that is naturally rather a sensitive subject in Germany, they don't like it. We think it's wrong that there are subjects – Europe, immigration controls, national responsibility – that cannot be discussed in Germany, because it is not acceptable."
As a party founded by an economist, though, Alternative für Deutschland – which is now looking at up to 10 seats in the European parliament – thinks above all that something has to be done about the euro. "It is clearly harming Europe," says Jörg Meuthen, an economics professor from Kehl and European parliament candidate. "In this party we are about facts, evidence, reason. Not ideologies. And the clear facts, we have to face it, are that while the common market is a success story – it works, it has increased prosperity, it has brought us together – the common currency is precisely the reverse. It does not work. It has reduced prosperity. It is pushing us apart."
One of AfD's democratically chosen slogans, says another candidate, Dirk Driesang, is "less EU, more Europe". "Solidarity is important," he says. "But on Greece, the EU showed solidarity with the banks, not with the Greek people. The euro's a problem that can't be fixed. It's political will trying to trump economic reality."
On this, almost all the insurgents agree: FN, Finns, AfD, Five Star, Dutch Socialists – the euro, they argue, has been a disaster. "As an experiment, it's been a catastrophe," says Ludovic de Danne, European affairs adviser to Marine Le Pen. The currency is "structurally unstable", says De Jong.
"We quite clearly should not be in the same currency as Greece, Italy and Spain," says Halla-aho. "It is not based on financial realities. It was a nice idea to think the euro would push countries like Greece to raise their game, but it hasn't happened. And the euro is far too strong now for Finland, which depends almost entirely on exports."
Where they fail to agree, however, is on what to do about it. The Front National would like France out the euro, and to hell with the consequences. The Dutch Socialists want "serious and open discussions, among all member states, about how to dissolve it in an orderly manner".
AfD quite likes the sound of a smaller, northern eurozone, made up for example of Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland. The Finns think some countries should leave, but aren't sure yet who: the southern states, or themselves.
Divisions over the common currency are mirrored in other equally fundamental areas. Ukip, for instance, wants Britain to simply walk away from the EU, regardless; the FN and PVV would go the same way given half a chance; AfD and the Finns see their own countries' exits as unthinkable, even suicidal, urging – like many continental sceptics – structural reform and the rebuilding of a kind of enhanced, free-trade community of sovereign states instead.
Several anti-Brussels parties, including the Front National and the Dutch Socialists, propose denying the unelected and – as they see it – centralising, ultra-liberal, bought-up and sold-out commission the right to initiate legislation, giving it instead to MEPs and the Council of Ministers representing national governments. Many, too, want a more flexible union, with member states able to say no to specific measures.
On other issues they face fundamental disagreements. Questions around immigration, "Islamification" and identity politics are no-go areas for many: Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders may recently have agreed to form a continental anti-European alliance aimed at wrecking the EU from within, and other hardline nationalists such as Italy's Lega Nord, Austria's FPO, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the Swedish Democrats may well join them, but more moderate parties will not go near.
"Wilders and Le Pen are simply out of the picture for the Finns," says Sakari Puisto, a young academic standing for the party in Tampere, in central Finland. "We could not envisage allying ourselves with neo-fascists. Or with communists, for that matter."
Unity against EU
De Jong says his party "will not engage with anyone proposing discriminatory policies, wanting to create tensions on the grounds of race or religion". Farage has said that while he admires Le Pen's drive to decontaminate her party, the whiff of historic antisemitism that still hangs over it rules out any formal co-operation with Ukip.
Unfortunately, formal co-operation is important in the European parliament: forming a political group, which needs 25 MEPs from seven states, qualifies its members for offices and funding – as well as, crucially for any party pushing for change, a say in what gets debated in the parliament's plenary session, the right to table motions for resolutions and chair parliamentary committees, and extra speaking time in the chamber.
Will the insurgents manage to overcome their differences long enough to form an effective opposition to the pro-integration behemoths of centre-right and centre-left – to become, in effect, a kind of European Tea Party, paralysing the European parliament in much the same way as ultra-conservative Republicans have paralysed Washington?
While all stress "flexibility" and willingness to co-operate with anyone who shares a specific view, few can imagine Syriza ever sitting down with the FPO, AfD with Jobbik, or Ukip with the PVV. Most EU observers seem to think the Wilders-Le Pen group stands a fair chance of hanging together, however, and the current Europe of Freedom and Democracy group – which includes Ukip – will almost certainly reform with new and different members. The radical left, too, should comfortably form a group.
The enemy invasion: Brussels braced for influx of Eurosceptics in EU polls A demonstrator burns an EU flag in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Whether that will be enough for the rebels to seriously challenge the status quo is another matter. "At the end of the day," points out Hugh Bronson, an AfD candidate, "even if the combined anti-Brussels forces – I don't like to say Eurosceptic, we're not all anti-EU, just anti this particular EU – even if we manage 25 or 30% of seats, the Christian and Social Democrats will still have 70%. It could just be business as usual; same old, same old …"
Some observers feel the anti–EU parties' best chance of really influencing debate over the coming years is at a national level.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is in Britain, where Ukip, despite not having a single seat in Westminster, has parlayed a string of strong byelection performances and the winning media persona of its hail-fellow-well-met leader into real political gain, pushing David Cameron into pledging a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU and rushing through measures to reduce "unwanted" EU immigration in the form of so-called "benefit tourism".
But in the Netherlands, too, Wilders' anti-Europeanism has contributed to growing Dutch dislike of austerity and secured clampdowns on immigration and asylum-seekers, while in France the Front National, after a carefully planned and efficiently implemented local campaign that targeted winnable town halls and concentrated more on policy credibility than outraged protest, has both the ruling Socialists and the opposition UMP running scared.
Even in Finland, notes Halla-aho with the satisfaction of a man who has got at least some of what he wants, "the best way to make a politician act in a certain way is to make him fear the results of the next election".
It is at the heart of Europe, though, that these parties want to make their mark. "I really hope the established parties listen after this shock; they really have to," says Di Stefano of the Five Star Movement. "The fact that so many political parties, of such wildly differing ideologies, now share such a fundamentally similar analysis of where the European Union is failing – that, surely, is a measure of how far things have gone wrong. It's going to have to change."
And if Brussels does not listen, the rebels believe, there will, eventually and inevitably, be an explosion violent enough to blow the whole European construct to pieces. "If we are ignored," says the Dutch socialist De Jong, "then in five years' time, our voice will be even louder. People will be even more angry and frustrated."
Back in Coulommiers, Chauprade's European affairs adviser, Adrien Mexis, 33, a lecturer in European law at the prestigious Sciences Po in Paris, former staffer at the European commission in Brussels, and newly elected Front National local councillor, is harsher still.
"I spent six years in Brussels," he says, "where we were supposed to be defending the interests of the people of Europe. Instead, we defended the interests of the lobbyists, big industrial groups and multinationals. We defended ever-deeper integration and ever-wider federalism; a uniform, homogenous Europe, devoid of identities.
"Is that really what the people of Europe want? I don't think so. And I think they're waking up to it. This is a big moment."
Militants Pose Threat on Eve of National Elections in Iraq
By TIM ARANGO and DURAID ADNAN
APRIL 28, 2014
BAGHDAD — Snipers line the rooftops across Falluja, waiting for a chance to shoot at government soldiers, should they try to invade. Homes have been wired to explode, too, just in case the government rushes the city. And roads have been studded with countless steel-plated bombs, of the type that killed so many American soldiers here.
Falluja — and the rest of Anbar Province — perhaps more than any other locale in Iraq, embodies the lengths the United States went to tame a bloody insurgency unleashed by its invasion. But now, much of the region is again beyond the authority of the central government and firmly in the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a jihadist group that is so radical it has broken with Al Qaeda, in part because it insisted on being allowed to indiscriminately kill Shiites.
That reality, which the government appears powerless to remedy, offers a sobering postscript to the American war and a volatile backdrop to elections scheduled for Wednesday. The vote will be Iraq’s first nationwide election since the withdrawal of United States forces at the end of 2011, and it is clear it will be held amid rapidly growing violence and sectarian bloodletting. On Monday, six suicide bombers struck polling sites around the country as security force members voted in advance, killing at least 27 people, officials said.
The greater fear, though, is that there is no way back this time, that the sectarian division of the nation will become entrenched as the government concentrates its forces on protecting its seat of power in Baghdad. With fighting in Abu Ghraib, on the western edge of Baghdad and less than 20 miles from the city center, the government recently shut down the local prison. Insurgents have gained strength in Salahuddin Province, to the north of Baghdad, and in Diyala Province, northeast of the capital.
“All arrows are pointing toward Baghdad now,” said Jessica D. Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, who has closely followed the fighting in Anbar.
Iraq’s security forces, trained by the United States at a cost of billions of dollars, have been unable to dislodge the militants. In trying to help, the United States may unwittingly have made matters worse when it pressed the government to arm tribes in the area to fight the radicals, a strategy that worked the first time the United States struggled to restore order in the region.
Since January, Washington has rushed guns and bullets to the fight — including 14 million rounds of ammunition and more than 250,000 grenades. But arming the tribes did not work, and some of those American-supplied weapons are now in the hands of militants, having been captured during clashes, officials and tribal leaders said.
“Arming the tribes in Anbar was a big mistake,” said Sheikh Laurence al-Hardan, a tribal leader in a village named Karma, near Falluja, who said he is opposed to both the central government and the radical Islamists controlling his villages. “That allowed the tribes to fight other tribes. And large numbers of weapons were taken by the armed groups.”
With the residents who remain in Falluja, the militants have backed off somewhat from the harsh Islamic rule extremists aligned with Al Qaeda established a decade ago, before being dislodged by American Marines in bloody fighting that claimed hundreds of lives.
The insurgents have set up free garbage collection. Men are allowed to smoke cigarettes and are not required to grow beards. Women, though, need to be covered in a full veil, called a niqab. “I can only show my eyes and nothing else,” said a 24-year-old woman who gave only her first name, Sawsan. “And no makeup is allowed.”
Sawsan was looking forward to graduating from university this year, but the school is closed. “We have an unknown future waiting for us, with no hope left inside us,” she said.
Adding to the bleak landscape, with the militant gains in Anbar, the insurgency in Iraq has increasingly converged with the civil war in Syria. Experts and officials are beginning to speak of a vast territory that stretches from Aleppo in Syria through Anbar Province and up to the doorstep of Baghdad that is controlled by Islamist extremists.
The Iraqi security forces have lost territory, and suffered casualties rumored to be in the thousands but are undisclosed by the government. Militants have destroyed bridges, and seized a dam, cutting off an important supply of water to the south, and flooding areas of Falluja. To flaunt their gains, insurgents have even held military parades in Falluja, driving down a central street in trucks seized from the Iraqi special forces.
The fighters in Anbar, now a mix of extremists and local tribal fighters, are better trained than the ones who faced the Americans. For months the local Sunni population, including some tribal sheikhs, have seen the strength of the insurgents on the battlefield, and the authority they have wielded within communities. They are now more inclined to side with the extremists than with the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Tribal militias are also fighting one another in some places, adding to the complexity of the battlefield.
Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization, said that in the face of an impossible fight in Anbar, Mr. Maliki is likely to put more resources into defending Baghdad. “My fear, as an analyst, is that Anbar and Falluja will shift to Syria, and more and more the Iraqis will focus on protecting the Green Zone,” she said, referring to the fortified center of the capital where most important government buildings are.
The election is largely seen as a referendum on Mr. Maliki’s eight years in power, but it will also be a crucial test of the Sunni community’s commitment, or aversion, to the political process.
There will only be a limited number of polling stations within Anbar, which will affect Sunni turnout in the election. Officials say those who have been displaced from Anbar will be able to vote in the places where they have sought refuge, such as in the northern Kurdish region.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has actively tried to dissuade Sunnis from voting, threatening violence through leaflets and postings on social media.
“Those groups have the power to kill me, and they are controlling many parts of Anbar,” said Belal al-Jubori, who is 32, unemployed and lives near Ramadi, the capital of Anbar. “So it’s not worth putting my life at risk. After all, we got nothing from previous elections.”
The election is equally risky for candidates in Anbar, some of whom have withdrawn because of threats. One former candidate from a village near Falluja, who was too terrified to give his name, said he was recently abducted by armed men who showed up at his house in a sport utility vehicle. “They told me, ‘You should withdraw from the elections or we will kill you, your family and burn your house. The Islamic State has given its orders.’ ”
He got the message.
“I withdrew and took my posters down,” he said.
The United Nations estimated that hundreds of thousands of Anbar residents have fled the fighting, perpetuating a cycle of exodus and return that began after the American invasion in 2003 and never fully ceased.
When militants capture Iraqi soldiers, they are usually executed on the spot. But local policemen, who are Sunni and are from the area, are given a chance: If they repent for their service to the government and pledge loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, they are given a gun, a salary and a new job as a foot soldier in the war against the government.
Still, recent interviews with residents inside Falluja painted a dystopian portrait of fear, uncertainty and lives interrupted. Schools have closed, marriages have been canceled. The few local journalists who remained have been threatened with death.
Muhammed Anmar, a carpenter, used to earn a living selling furniture. “Now I am just sitting, waiting for what’s going to happen next in this city that is dead,” he said. “We used to have life here. Now, no work, no sound of life.”
04/28/2014 05:50 PM
Iraqi Election Fear: 'No One Is Safe Anymore'
Interview Conducted By Dieter Bednarz and Klaus Brinkbäumer
Iraq's former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, is hoping to oust the current government in this week's elections. He speaks to SPIEGEL about his belief that the Americans robbed him of power and about the country's escalating violence.
Ayad Allawi has only just seen off a delegation of Shiite clerics from Basra, and already emissaries from the autonomous region of Kurdistan are waiting for him in the parlor. A long list of supporters and activists come to visit the 69-year-old here, in the campaign office of his Iraqi National Accord Party, despite the dangers involved in a trip to Baghdad. Bomb attacks still rock the country, and the capital, every day.
Allawi's elaborately secured residence, a former educational center of the Baath Party, is located in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, outside the sealed Green Zone in which the government, international organizations and US Embassy have fortified themselves. Allawi drags his right leg: "A greeting from Saddam Hussein," he says. He claims that in 1978, Saddam's henchmen had wanted to dispose of him because he had demanded freedom and democracy. He points to his family's democratic tradition: His ancestors, he says, revolted against the British occupiers and were involved in the founding of Iraq, becoming ministers and lawmakers.
Allawi, the son of a Shiite businessman, joined the nationalist Baath party when he was a medical student, but in the 1970s, became an opponent of Saddam, who had already begun using brutal methods to steer the country. Today, 11 years after Saddam's fall, violence, corruption and abuses of power still dominate daily life in Baghdad. Allawi blames Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for this chaos. Allawi says his "primary goal" for the parliamentary election on April 30 is to remove his religiously influenced government.
SPIEGEL recently sat down for an interview with Allawi in the run-up to parliamentary elections in Iraq on Wednesday.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Allawi, you are the head of the coalition of opposition parties known as the National List, and you are challenging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the parliamentary election on April 30. Do you expect it to be a fair election?
Allawi: No, not really. The number of atrocities used to intimidate the opposition has gone up again. And the politically devastating charge that I was a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is being dragged out again. This tactic is especially intended to sideline opposition candidates who are capable of capture a lot of votes.
SPIEGEL: And you are running nonetheless?
Allawi: I see it as my duty to take a stand for the Iraqi people, for democracy, freedom and reconciliation.
SPIEGEL: Can a policy of reconciliation produce a majority in this heated environment?
Allawi: I am convinced that it can, or else I wouldn't advocate it. Many Iraqis now recognize that things can't go on like this, that violence and religious extremism are destroying Iraq and that the country will break apart.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many Iraqis still want to see Maliki return as prime minister.
Allawi: I'm not so sure about that. Maliki has lost an influential ally in cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who now publicly refers to the prime minister as a "tyrant." And religious scholar Ammar al-Hakim, who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, also has a large following. It could turn into a neck-and-neck race. I see my movement as a third force, alongside the Kurds, who are strong in their part of the country, in the north, Iraqi Kurdistan. In truly free elections, we could even win.
SPIEGEL: Are your warnings about massive election fraud a way of hiding the fact that you don't have nearly as much public support as you claim?
Allawi: Let's wait and see what happens in the election. If it's transparent and fair, and we still lose, I'll accept it.
SPIEGEL: The coalition of parties you lead won the 2010 parliamentary election. But Maliki moved into the prime minister's palace because he was more politically tactful.
Allawi: No, the fact that he came into office was the result of a bitter power struggle that had begun before those elections. Many of my allies and supporters were arrested, 16 were killed and about 500 were banned from politics for allegedly being Baath officials. All of this forced us onto the sidelines. But we will still win.
SPIEGEL: With 91 seats in parliament, you captured two more seats than Maliki's faction, and yet Maliki got the mandate to form a government.
Allawi: In 2010, President Jalal Talabani was under pressure from foreign powers. He even admitted it later on. That's why he never gave us the mandate to form a government within 45 days, despite the fact that this is stipulated in our constitution.
SPIEGEL: But Iraq's Supreme Court confirmed the president's decision, ruling that appointing Maliki four years ago was legal.
Allawi: Are you saying that some judges weren't being pressured?
SPIEGEL: Who is supposed to have exerted so much influence on the Iraqi president and the judges on the federal court?
Allawi: Iran and theUnited States and some local adversaries.
SPIEGEL: Are you trying to tell us that your election victory spurred two long-time enemies, Tehran and Washington, to collaborate?
Allawi: As far as the pressure from Iran goes, I can assure you that there was a very clear red line: Allawi and the Iraqi List were not to be allowed to come into power. Many regional leaders -- including Russia, Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar -- tried to reason with Iran in order to get it to shift its strategy, but they failed.
SPIEGEL: Why would your fellow Shiites in Tehran have been interested in preventing you from becoming prime minister?
Allawi: I have nothing against the Iranian leadership. In fact, I accommodated it often enough during my time as premier. But I am no proponent of a theocracy. I am a secularist. I wanted an independent Iraqi government, not a lackey of Tehran.
SPIEGEL: It is precisely this independence of Iraq that Prime Minister Maliki insisted on during a conversation with us. He vehemently rejects the accusation that he is a lackey of Iran.
Allawi: Maliki is extremely close to the leadership in Tehran. I, on the other hand, am no proponent of radical Shi'ism. I also don't support any sectarian forces. And I'm against politicizing religion. That's why the Iranian leadership intervened in the outcome of our election at the time.
SPIEGEL: It may be feasible that Iran wants to gain control over neighboring Iraq and sees Maliki as the more willing partner. But why should the United States give the mullahs in Tehran free rein on this issue?
Allawi: Washington fears Tehran and its interventions. I believe that the US calculation was that if I came into power against Iran's will, Tehran would plunge Iraq into even greater chaos. Keeping me from coming into power was apparently the lesser evil. I call that intervening in Iraq's internal affairs.
SPIEGEL: Those are serious accusations you are leveling against the US government.
Allawi: President Obama called me at the time, when we were trying to reach some sort of a power-sharing agreement. Maliki was to become prime minister and I, as a member of the government, was to head a Council for Higher Policies. Obama promised me that he would support this solution. He even sent his ambassador that very afternoon to witness the negotiations between the president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, and Maliki, and also to convey Washington's position.
SPIEGEL: But after an eight-month power vacuum, Maliki was confirmed in office…
Allawi: …and the power-sharing agreement came to nothing. But did you know that even (Syrian President) Bashar Assad tried to mediate?
SPIEGEL: No. On which side was the Syrian president at the time?
Allawi: He called me and invited me to come to Damascus, along with a dozen members of parliament. He told me that he had tried to champion my coalition with the Iranians, but was unsuccessful. He also said that he had since heard, "from friends in Turkey and other countries," that America no longer supported my coalition, but rather, like Iran, stood behind Maliki.
Who Controls This Election?
SPIEGEL: Do you have any indications that Tehran could also manipulate the outcome of the current election?
Allawi: The conditions, at the very least, have changed. Iran has enough on its plate, having to overcome the crisis in Syria and curb the unrest in Lebanon. That's why it no longer has as much influence as it did four years ago. Iran also sees our vulnerable country as a buffer between itself and crisis-plagued Syria and Lebanon.
SPIEGEL: In the run-up to the Iraqi elections, is it even possible for you to go on something like a campaign tour?
Allawi: It would be too dangerous. There is no such thing as a campaign here, because hardly anyone can safely appear in public.
SPIEGEL: You have been the target of several assassination attempts. One nearly succeeded.
Allawi: Yes, I was lucky on that Feb. 4, 1978. I was finally able to return to a normal life after many months in the hospital. My wife never got over the attack. She became severely depressed and later died as a result.
SPIEGEL: Could you describe what happened?
Allawi: I was doing post-graduate work in medicine in Britain. We were living in a house in Surrey in southern England. It happened in the middle of the night, at around 3 a.m. At first I thought that the shadow was a dream, but then I saw a huge axe moving towards me. Then I realized that something had startled me, that my eyes were wide open and that someone was kicking me. Something shiny came at me, and I fought with that shadow. I tried to kick back. I tried to get up. But I couldn't do it. I felt hot water flowing across my face and chest. This lasted about 30 seconds, before my late wife switched on the light.
I recognized that it was a man who was attacking me with an axe. I realized that I was covered in my own blood, and that it was coming from my head. I saw that my right leg was shattered around the level of my knee. My wife attacked the attacker and bit his hand. Then he attacked her. I was able to get the weapon away from him, and I hit him in the leg with it. He fled with his accomplices, whose presence I hadn't noticed before.
SPIEGEL: And then?
Allawi: I called the hospital and asked them to call the police. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. It took a year before I could be released.
SPIEGEL: Were the perpetrators caught?
Allawi: No. The doctors didn't allow anyone to see me in the first three days, not even the police. By then the perpetrators had left the country. But they were members of Saddam's intelligence service. I later learned that they had even managed to get into the hospital morgue to see if my body was there. The British counterterrorism unit that was then in charge of my investigation was also convinced that Saddam had sent the killers.
SPIEGEL: After the dictator was overthrown, were you able to learn anything about the attacker or his accomplices?
Allawi: The British investigated the perpetrators, and it turned that Saddam's intelligence service had sent one of them to Turkey afterwards. His assignment was to kill members of the opposition living in exile, who were traveling to northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan) through Turkey. And I was supposed to be the first target. But Turkish security forces arrested him, and he came clean and was extradited to our transitional government.
SPIEGEL: Is he still in prison?
Allawi: I don't know if he is in prison or has since been released. I didn't press charges against him, even though I know his name and have a photo of him. Personally, I have forgiven him, partly to send a message: We have to stop killing each other. We only stand a chance if we can break this spiral of violence and retribution.
SPIEGEL: Iraq doesn't seem to be able to escape from this vicious circle.
Allawi: As prime minister, at least I tried to break through the circle. I distinguished between terrorists, and the so-called resistance…
SPIEGEL: … made up of Sunni tribal fighters who feel robbed of their share of power.
Allawi: I sought dialogue. The activists in this resistance movement, most of them Sunnis, are part of our people. They feel marginalized and discriminated against by Maliki's government. We have to integrate them, not fight them. And I also sought dialogue with former Baathists when there was no evidence that they were personally responsible for any crimes.
SPIEGEL: Are you ignoring the collaboration between the Sunni tribes and the al-Qaida terror network?
Allawi: I was in the troubled Anbar Province, in the centers, like Fallujah, of the so-called uprising. Baathists and Sunni clerics joined me in fighting the terrorists. I can tell the difference between senseless terror and justifiable rebellion.
SPIEGEL: But you also failed to achieve reconciliation.
Allawi: Unfortunately, my successors in office have taken a different approach. The whole country is in turmoil. The security situation is getting worse every day, not just because of the terrorists' bombs, but also as a result of mass arrests. No one is safe anymore. Just yesterday, one of our maids didn't show up to work. Why? Because her cousin had been kidnapped. The family had to come up with $15,000 (€10,900), which it then paid to the kidnappers. Then they called our maid and told her where to find her cousin. She drove to the place and found him. He was dead, lying next to six other bodies.
SPIEGEL: Your house in Baghdad is heavily guarded, and you don't take a step without bodyguards. Do you carry a weapon?
Allawi: I'm a doctor and a politician. Weapons are foreign to me. But as a farewell present when I left the office of prime minister, an Arab king gave me a nice little machine gun. For years it was kept in a nice box, somewhere in this house. Four months ago, I pulled out the dusty box and unpacked the weapon. My bodyguards showed me how to clean, load and use the weapon. Believe me, I never thought it would come to this.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Allawi, we thank you for this interview.
Child marriage could become law in Iraq this week, but it’s a global scourge
By Gordon Brown, The Guardian
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 5:46 EDT
When Iraqi voters go to the polls tomorrow they are likely to endorse parties that plan to legalise child marriage at nine years old. Based on Shia Islamic jurisprudence, what is called the Ja’afari personal status law was approved by the current Iraqi cabinet eight weeks ago. It describes girls as reaching puberty at nine, and therefore ready for marriage. The current legal age is 18.
This barbaric and regressive law would grant fathers sole guardianship of their female children from the age of two, as well as legalising marital rape. It has horrified Iraqi women and they publicly declared last month’s International Women’s Day an Iraqi day of mourning in response to the worrying developments. Hassan al-Shimari, the Iraqi justice minister who proposed the draft law, is a member of the small Islamist Fadhila (Virtue) party, which is allied with the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term in office.
The move is a further loosening of protection for school-age girls. Even without the new law the number of child marriages in Iraq is rising. In 1997 15% of marriages involved women under 18, according to Iraqi government figures – jumping to more than 20% in 2012, with almost 5% married by the age of 15.
Activists are worried that because of financial hardship, families are forced to marry off daughters young when they are offered dowries. There are serious concerns that if this new law comes into force it would only escalate the trend.
But Iraq is not alone. Around the world 10 million children are not at school today as a result of being married off as child brides – a number that is rising in many countries. In the past few months Mauritania has been at the centre of allegations of genital mutilation to make it possible for girls of eight and nine to be married. The country has resisted pressure to introduce a legal minimum age for marriage. In Yemen, where the UN estimates that more than 50% of girls are married before they turn 18, there is also still no minimum age.
Nigeria has also been considering reducing the age of marriage. And India, where rape has brought millions on to the streets in protest, has been revealed as having 40% of the world’s child brides.
The facts are that the one secure way to prevent child marriage is to deliver the right of every child to be at school. A girl with some education is not only unlikely to be married at eight, nine or 10, but is also six times less likely to be married by 18.
Child marriage-free zones, where girls get together and refuse to be married, are springing up on the subcontinent – the first in Pakistan, with several now in Bangladesh, and others soon to be set up in countries such as Malawi. We see that girls are no longer prepared to succumb to the fate that others have decided for them, or to wait for others to protect them.
Together with a group of high profile individuals I am proud to be part of the Emergency Coalition for Education Action. The coalition is committed to zero education exclusion, and this means zero child marriage. We are linking up with girls’ rights movements across the developing world, including Nepal’s Common Forum for Kalmal Hari Freedom, the Nilphamari Child Marriage Free Zone in Bangladesh, the Ugandan Child Protection Club, and Indonesia’s Grobogan Child Empowerment Group.
Many are linked to the growing Girls not Brides movement spearheaded by Princess Mabel van Oranje of the Netherlands – more than 300 national organisations are already affiliated. They are attempting to stop child marriage by law, to register girls by their correct ages, to enforce existing banning regulations, and to get girls to school.
Children’s rights must be protected across the world, and we call on all countries to put an end to the barbaric practice of child marriage and to ensure all children are in school and learning.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
IAEA to Visit Iran Nuclear Sites Next Week
by Naharnet Newsdesk
29 April 2014, 14:11
A team of IAEA experts is expected to visit two of Iran's nuclear sites within the next week, as part of a monitoring process agreed with the U.N. agency.
Iran's official IRNA news agency reported Tuesday that inspectors would travel to the Ardakan yellow-cake production plant and the Saghand uranium mine, located close together around 450 kilometres (280 miles) from Tehran.
Visiting the two sites "is the main purpose of this trip," Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's atomic energy organisation, told IRNA.
The trip is in line with a seven-step plan agreed between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency in February to increase transparency over Tehran's nuclear activities.
Kamalvandi was quoted separately by the ISNA news agency as saying that IAEA officials already visited the Lashkar Ab'ad Laser Centre, which is said to have been used for uranium enrichment.
February's seven-step agreement is due to be completed by May 15, two days after the start of political talks in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany -- aimed at reaching a lasting accord on Tehran's disputed nuclear programme.
As part of an IAEA probe, Iran agreed with the U.N. atomic agency in February to clarify its need "for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators".
According to the IAEA, Iran told the agency in 2008 that it had developed EBWs for "civilian and conventional military applications" but has yet to explain its "need or application for such detonators".
Such fast, high-precision detonators could be used in civilian applications but are mostly known for triggering a nuclear chain reaction. The IAEA believes they form "an integral part of a program to develop an implosion type nuclear device."
Russia and Iran Reported in Talks on Energy Deal Worth Billions
By RICK GLADSTONE
APRIL 28, 2014
The Obama administration’s strategy of punishing Russia with economic sanctions over the Ukraine crisis encountered a new complication on Monday with word that the Russians are negotiating an $8 billion to $10 billion energy deal with Iran, another country ostracized by American-led sanctions, which partly depend on Moscow’s cooperation to be effective.
The Russia-Iran energy deal, reported by the Iranian state news media, is the second significant economic collaboration under negotiation between the two countries that could undercut the efficacy of the sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions are widely credited with successfully pressuring the Iranians in the current talks over their disputed nuclear program.
Officials at the United States Treasury Department, which enforces economic sanctions against Iran, did not immediately respond to queries about whether the Russia-Iran energy deal would technically violate those sanctions, which prohibit dealings with a range of Iranian government entities and industries and penalize foreigners who subvert them.
How Much Europe Depends on Russian Energy
Russia supplies about one-third of the oil and gas imported into the European Union, a dependency that complicates efforts to punish Russia’s annexation of Crimea. European leaders continue to consider a range of economic sanctions, including measures against the oil and gas industries.
Square size represents the total energy imports into each country (excluding intra-E.U. trade).
Under the deal, as reported by Iran’s Mehr News Agency, the Russians would export 500 megawatts of electricity to Iran and construct new thermal and hydroelectric generating plants and a transmission network. Mehr said terms of the deal were discussed on Sunday between Hamid Chitchian, Iran’s energy minister, and his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak, who was on a state visit to Iran.
Mehr quoted Mr. Chitchian as emphasizing “the need for further expansion of economic ties between Tehran and Moscow, particularly in the energy and commerce spheres.”
The Obama administration has expressed anger about a previously reported negotiation between Iran and Russia, worth an estimated $20 billion, under which the Iranians would trade 500,000 barrels of oil a day for Russian goods. Administration officials have said such a barter arrangement would violate sanctions on Iran. There has been no indication that the deal is close to completion.
Russia is a member of the so-called P5-plus-1 group of countries — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — which has been negotiating with Iran for guarantees that its nuclear program is peaceful and not a guise for attaining the ability to make weapons.
Under a six-month accord that took effect in January, Iran agreed to freeze most of its nuclear activities in exchange for a modest relaxation of some sanctions, including the release of $4.2 billion of Iranian money impounded in foreign banks, while negotiators work toward a permanent agreement.
Most of the sanctions remain in force, including severe limits on Iranian oil sales and prohibitions on Iran’s use of international banking networks.
Iran and Russia have a long and troubled relationship. During the Second World War, Russian forces occupied half of the country. The other half, the south, was occupied by the British.
Denied access to many Western economic resources after the Iranian revolution of 1979, the authorities in Iran have increasingly turned to Russia, and the Russians have exacted high prices. The most famous Russian business venture in Iran is the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s first and only commercial nuclear reactor. It finally went into operation into 2013 after years of delays and Russian cost increases. It still relies on Russian fuel, which Iran has used as an argument for its own nuclear program.
Militarily the Iranians have also felt victimized by the Russians. Under a contract signed in 2007, Russia was obliged to provide Iran with at least five S-300 advanced missile defense systems, but the Russians never delivered them, contending they were prohibited from doing so by United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran. Angered, Iran filed a complaint with the International Court of Arbitration in Geneva, where it remains.
Many Iranian nationalists are wary about the Russians and their intentions, but Iran’s current leaders are feeling increasingly comfortable with President Vladimir V. Putin’s anti-American and anti-Western stances.
Square size represents the total energy imports into each country (excluding intra-E.U. trade).
Indian election campaigner alleges gang-rape by more than a dozen men
Muslim woman in Jharkhand files complaint with police, claiming she and teenage daughter attacked over her BJP work
Agence France-Presse in Patna
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 April 2014 12.01 BST
A Muslim woman in eastern India has alleged she was gang-raped by more than a dozen men because of her work helping the Hindu nationalist opposition in ongoing elections, police have said.
The woman from Jharkhand state filed a complaint with police that a mob attacked her in her home on Monday and also assaulted her 13-year-old daughter. Her husband was allegedly handcuffed during the attack.
Anurag Gupta, a senior officer and spokesman for Jharkhand police, said an investigation had begun and it was too soon to confirm the woman's allegations of a political motive for the attack.
"An investigation from all angles is on and it is very difficult at present to say the exact reason behind the incident," Gupta told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
The victim, in her 30s, was part of a minority wing of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) designed to attract Muslim voters to the party, which is expected to sweep the polls.
Few Muslims are expected to vote for the BJP, which is being led by the hardliner Narendra Modi, who remains tarnished by religious riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002.
Modi, forecast by voter surveys to become prime minister after results are announced on 16 May, was chief minister of Gujarat when the riots broke out. More than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims.
Despite criticism that he failed to contain the violence, he has been cleared of any personal wrongdoing. A woman he later appointed to his cabinet has been jailed for life for directing rioters.
Women's issues are high on the agenda in the parliamentary elections after the fatal gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus in December 2012, which sparked a national debate about sexual violence.
Fewer than a fifth of the candidates standing for the BJP or the ruling Congress party are women, according to an analysis by AFP. In the current parliament women hold 11% of seats in both houses.
The victim in Monday's assault alleged that the attackers fled with 30,000 rupees (£300) in cash, and jewellery worth more than 200,000 rupees.
The inspector at the police station closest to the victim's home confirmed the gang-rape complaint to AFP. TN Singh said villagers had used the loudspeaker of a mosque to alert others to the assault, after which the attackers fled.
India elections: Kashmir police crack down on separatists before poll
More than 500 people detained before latest round of voting on Wednesday
Agence France-Presse in Srinagar
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 April 2014 11.49 BST
Police in Indian Kashmir have detained more than 500 people including separatist leaders before the latest round of voting in the restive region, officers and separatists said on Tuesday.
Police said the crackdown took place in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar and throughout the constituency that votes on Wednesday as part of the India's six-week general election.
"To ensure peaceful and violence-free polling in central Kashmir, police have been taking preventive measures and arrested around 400 stone-pelters and trouble-mongers," a police statement said.
"Nobody will be allowed to disrupt the electoral process. The arrests have been made and will continue to be effected to instil confidence among the voters."
Police targeted 130 people who they suspected would lead protests on Wednesday against the polls, arresting them in raids on their homes, a senior officer said.
The Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, where a separatist movement against Indian rule is centred, posed a heightened challenge for security forces during previous rounds of polling this month.
Top separatist leaders, who reject the elections as well as Indian rule over Kashmir, have been detained in police stations or confined to their houses, separate statements from two main separatist groupings said.
Voting has been light so far in the valley after a campaign of intimidation by local militant groups, who killed three people last week and warned locals not to take part.
Police faced stone-throwing protesters in the southern Kashmir valley during voting on 24 April. They used teargas and batons to disperse crowds protesting against the poll.
About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 either for independence or for the merger of the territory with Pakistan. The fighting has left tens of thousands, mostly civilians, dead.
Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan soon after the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947.
Russia Vows to Hit back at Japan over Travel Ban
by Naharnet Newsdesk
29 April 2014, 10:23
Moscow on Tuesday vowed to hit back at Japan over its decision to deny visas to 23 Russian nationals as part of additional sanctions linked to the crisis in Ukraine.
The Russian foreign ministry said that Tokyo's decision was "met with disappointment in Moscow, and of course will not be left without a response".
The Japanese foreign ministry said Tuesday that the Russian nationals on its list -- whom it did not identify but who were reported by Tokyo media to include some government officials -- were suspected of "infringing the unity of Ukraine's sovereignty and territory".
Tokyo's announcement came after the United States and Europe expanded their own lists of punitive measures against Russian officials and Kremlin-linked firms.
The Russian foreign ministry described Tokyo's decision as "a clumsy step taken under the influence of foreign pressure".
"Attempts by Japan to put pressure on Russia will in no way help de-escalate tensions around Ukraine," the Russian statement said.
Relations between Moscow and Tokyo have been strained for decades because of the status of four Pacific islands that are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.
The dispute has hurt the two sides' trade relations and prevented the signature of a peace treaty formally ending hostilities dating back to World War II.
N. Korea Holds Live-Fire Drill on Maritime Border
by Naharnet Newsdesk
29 April 2014, 07:08
North Korea held a brief live-fire drill near its maritime border with South Korea on Tuesday, hours after U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up an Asia trip that Pyongyang had denounced as provocative.
A similar drill one month ago saw a number of shells land on the South Korean side of the border, prompting a response that resulted in both countries firing hundreds of artillery rounds into each others territorial waters.
There was no repeat this time around, with Seoul warning it would respond "strongly" to any border violation.
North Korea had given advance notice of the drill which began around 2:00 pm (0500 GMT), according to the South Korean defense ministry.
"It lasted around 10 minutes and 50 shells were fired. None landed on the South side," a ministry spokesman said.
Residents on the South Korean border islands of Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong were advised to move to civilian shelters, while South Korea scrambled at least four fighter jets to patrol the area.
Used to repeated North Korean provocations, some simply brushed off the drill as an irritation.
"I'm so sick of it," said one inn owner on Baengnyeong island.
"The whole thing is just scaring my customers away. I'm more likely to die from business losses than an attack from the North," she told Agence France Presse by telephone.
The drill came amid concerns that the North is preparing to conduct its fourth atomic detonation, with recent satellite images showing stepped-up activity at its main nuclear test site.
It also followed the visit to Seoul last week by U.S. President Barack Obama as part of a four-nation Asian tour that ended in Manila earlier Tuesday.
- Angered by Obama -
Obama had angered Pyongyang by demanding that the North abandon its nuclear weapons program and by threatening tougher sanctions if it went ahead with another test.
"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is a path that leads only to more isolation," Obama told American troops based in Seoul.
"It's not a sign of strength. Anybody can make threats. Anyone can move an army. Anyone can show off a missile," he said.
North Korea denounced Obama's visit as "dangerously" provocative and said it had only reaffirmed Pyongyang's policy of preparing to fight "a full-scale nuclear war".
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, the most recent -- and most powerful -- in February last year.
The de-facto maritime boundary between the two Koreas -- the Northern Limit Line -- is not recognized by Pyongyang, which argues it was unilaterally drawn by U.S.-led United Nations forces after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Both sides complain of frequent incursions by the other and there were limited naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing four South Koreans and briefly triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.
Inter-Korean ties had seemed to be enjoying a thaw earlier this year when the North -- following rare, high-level official talks -- hosted the first reunion for more than three years of families separated by the Korean War.
But tensions began to escalate after the South launched its annual joint military exercises with the United States in late February.
The North was also angered by a U.N. report detailing Pyongyang's record of human rights abuses and by the U.N. Security Council's criticism after it test-fired two medium-range missiles in March.
Uproar in Egypt After Judge Sentences More Than 680 to Death
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
APRIL 28, 2014
EDWA, Egypt — Egyptian courts on Monday delivered devastating new blows to both the Islamist and liberal opponents of the new military-backed government.
A court in Minya, a provincial capital, sentenced to death the top spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood along with more than 680 others in connection with the killing of a single police officer during a riot here last summer, while a court in the capital banned the activities of the most effective left-leaning protest group, the April 6 movement, on espionage charges.
The rulings were the clearest evidence yet of the judiciary’s energetic support for the new government’s crackdown on dissent of all kinds in the aftermath of the military ouster last summer of Egypt’s only fairly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood.
The mass death sentence, announced after a cursory trial of a few sessions lasting just minutes, was the second of its kind from the same court in the space of a month, and it drew condemnation from the White House as well as international rights groups. The reaction threatened to embarrass the new government just as its foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, was visiting Washington on a mission to persuade the Obama administration to unlock millions of dollars in aid suspended after the military takeover.
Yet here in Edwa, a town of a few thousand where at least one member of every extended family appears to have been sentenced to death on Monday morning, anger at the sweeping verdict mixed with wonder at the apparent dysfunction of the courts and police. With only a small portion of the defendants in custody — and some living openly at home in Edwa — many residents said they took the verdict as a politicized threat meant to intimidate the Islamist opposition and argued that the executions could never take place without triggering an insurrection.
“We are living in absurdity,” said Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, 60, the principal of a school who was among those sentenced to death on Monday on charges that he participated in the attack on a local police station that led to the killing of the officer.
Both of the trials that ended in mass death sentences date to clashes that took place when the security forces used deadly force to break up sit-ins held by Mr. Morsi’s supporters to protest his ouster, killing nearly 1,000 people in a day, according to the best estimates by independent rights groups.
The province of Minya, an Islamist stronghold that was at the center of an insurgency 20 years ago, was a major flash point. Mobs stormed and destroyed several churches and police stations.
Two of Mr. Abdel-Wahab’s younger relatives were in custody and convicted in the case, and four others were still at large but convicted, he and his family said. They deny that any of their relatives participated in the attack. But in the case of Mr. Abdel-Wahab, who learned of his sentence from his weeping wife when he returned home from a party on Monday, the accusations are particularly implausible. He is a survivor of multiple heart operations and he is visibly feeble. He insisted that doctors had forbidden him to walk up stairs or inhale smoke, much less battle tear gas and bullets to ransack a police station. He pulled up his jalabiya to show surgical scars on both calves.
“I am the one who broke into the police station and killed the police officer?” he asked, sitting in his living room surrounded by family.
When he learned months ago that he had been charged with participating in the attack, he said, he immediately went to the police to explain that there must be a mistake. He said he told them that he was obviously too unwell to have taken part. And he said that their arrest warrant had listed his age as 45 instead of 60, and his occupation as unemployed. But the police insisted that the charges were correct and, inexplicably, allowed him to leave and continue his work at the school.
Those like Mr. Abdel-Wahab who were sentenced in absentia — the vast majority of the defendants — would be entitled to a retrial if they were brought into custody, and all the verdicts are subject to appeal. In finalizing last month’s mass verdict, the judge in both cases, Saed Youssef, on Monday confirmed the death sentences on 37 of those defendants while commuting 492 to life in prison — understood here as a term of 25 years. But if the verdicts are not yet final, rights advocates say the two mass death sentences are just the most extreme examples in a pattern of harsh, politicized verdicts supporting the new military-backed government in its sweeping crackdown. Increasingly, said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “there seems to be no attempt even to construct plausible cases.”
The death sentence against the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, 70, known as the supreme guide, appeared to mark a particular escalation. Trained as a veterinarian, he is revered as a religious authority by hundreds of thousands of Brotherhood members and supporters around the country, and, if carried out, his death sentence would mark the first time the Egyptian government has executed a supreme guide during more than six decades of often-bloody attempts to suppress the Brotherhood. In 1954, the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser sentenced to death Supreme Guide Hassan el-Houdaibi, but his sentence was later commuted and he was released.
Security forces arrested Mr. Badie last summer, and he remains in jail in Cairo facing multiple charges of inciting violence in the aftermath of the military takeover. His conviction in the Edwa case, however, is notable because he was known to be in Cairo at the time of the attack on the police station. And what’s more, all of his public statements during the period leading up to the attack emphasized calls for nonviolence. “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets,” he declared in a televised speech, in a phrase that became a Brotherhood rallying cry.
The left-leaning April 6 movement also espouses nonviolence. It helped spearhead the revolt against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and it has been critical of authoritarianism and police abuses under Mr. Morsi and the new military-backed government, earning it the special enmity of the security forces. On Monday, a panel known as the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters found the group guilty of conspiring with foreign powers and “committing acts that distort the image of the Egyptian state,” according to the official state newspaper. Its members have repeatedly denied those charges, which have often been floated as rumors in the state news media.
But on Monday it was the mass death sentence that captured the most attention. The White House said the ruling “defies even the most basic standards of international justice.”
Asked about the sentences at an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mr. Fahmy, Egypt’s foreign minister, said that the alarm was exaggerated, suggesting they might be overturned on appeal. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he added. “Let the legal process follow through.”
In Edwa, several residents warned that if the verdicts were left standing or were carried out, Minya would again erupt in violence.
“They must want to turn Minya into Syria and start a civil war, because that is what will happen if any of these death sentences is executed,” said Ahmed Omar, 37, a shopkeeper with two brothers who were sentenced on Monday. Both are at large — one working in Qatar, the other in Cairo.
Ahmed, the 33-year-old son of Mr. Abdel-Wahab, said he would take matters into his own hands if his father were put to death.
“I would personally blow myself up in the middle of the police station, and I am not afraid to say it,” he added. “There is no freedom,” he said. “It is if the revolution had never broken out.”
Arc of a Failed Deal: How Nine Months of Mideast Talks Ended in Disarray
By JODI RUDOREN and ISABEL KERSHNER
APRIL 28, 2014
JERUSALEM — There were late-night video conferences with Secretary of State John Kerry, including one from beneath mosquito netting in an Indonesian hotel. Mr. Kerry met a total of 34 times with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and about twice that with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
Israeli and Palestinian representatives were summoned for talks in Amman, Jordan; Davos, Switzerland; London; Munich; Paris; Rome; and Washington. And Mr. Kerry’s peace envoy, Martin S. Indyk, trekked with a Palestinian leader to ancient ruins in Jericho.
In the last few weeks, even as both sides took steps that undermined the process, Mr. Kerry and his team produced a new package of incentives, including Palestinian autonomy for planning and zoning in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank. All sides left a meeting last Tuesday optimistic.
The talks nonetheless collapsed two days later. Mr. Kerry has his share of the blame, at times leaving Israeli and Palestinian leaders with disparate understandings that would lead to later blowups and, toward the end, pushing beyond the White House’s comfort zone to create a new layer of internal negotiations that slowed events down.
Nine-Month Breakdown of Peace Talks
Secretary of State John Kerry announces the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a three-year stalemate. Israel agrees to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four batches, and the Palestinians promise not to leverage the observer-state status they won at the United Nations in 2012 to join international agencies and conventions.
Kerry Achieves Deal
But Mr. Netanyahu refused to risk alienating Israel’s right wing by restraining construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements; about 13,000 new units moved forward during the talks. Mr. Abbas, looking for a dignified exit from the public stage and furious over the settlement building, never responded to the ideas Mr. Kerry’s team had formulated for a framework to guide further negotiations.
Ultimately, the latest round proved the perennial truth with Middle East peacemaking: Washington cannot force an agreement if the parties are unwilling.
“It’s part of the pathology of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship that what one side demands the other side has a predisposition to reject,” said an American official knowledgeable about the negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity under White House dictate. “It’s one of the reasons that it’s so difficult to sustain negotiations, never mind get an agreement.”
Mr. Kerry set the lofty goal last July “to achieve a final-status agreement over the course of the next nine months.” Instead, as that deadline passes Tuesday, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are preparing a battery of punitive measures and unilateral steps that could spiral into the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, bringing one of the world’s most intractable conflicts to a new low.
After the pact signed last week by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant Islamic faction Hamas led Israel to halt the talks, President Obama said Friday it may be time for a pause in American intervention.
“I’ve been going through some soul-searching: Why, if we both say two-state solution, what’s gone wrong?” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, asked in an interview Monday. “My only answer is we have failed to sit and agree on a map on borders of the two states. Everything else will be a domino effect.”
Mr. Erekat’s Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, acknowledged that continued settlement construction was a problem, but said the Palestinians knew it was coming. Twice in April, she pointed out, even as details of new deals were being completed, the Palestinians surprised Israel and Washington, first by joining 15 international conventions to protest Israel’s failure to release a promised fourth batch of prisoners, and last week by reconciling with Hamas.
“When you make an agreement with somebody, if he says to you, ‘Listen, I’m going to pay, but it’s going to take some time,’ ” Ms. Livni said, “if you want the deal and if you really want to continue negotiations, you wait.”
The nine-month talks, likened from the beginning to a pregnancy, broke roughly into three trimesters. First were about 20 bilateral meetings in which both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to budge from their opening, maximalist positions. Then, after settlement announcements prompted the resignation of one Palestinian negotiator, those unproductive sessions were replaced in November with so-called proximity talks between each side and the Americans, focused on the framework. Finally, starting in March, the goal was truncated to simply extending the talks.
Joining Mr. Erekat at first was Mohammed Shtayyeh, an economist (he was later replaced by Majid Faraj, the intelligence chief). The Israeli side was led by Ms. Livni, Israel’s justice minister, and Isaac Molho, Mr. Netanyahu’s discreet lawyer. Tal Becker, on loan from Israel’s foreign ministry, and Waseem Khazmo, Mr. Erekat’s lawyer, sat in on all sessions, and Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli general, joined midstream.
They talked for hours, in English, with Mr. Erekat repeating certain mantras: “I’m willing to limit my sovereignty but not my dignity,” he would say. “I don’t walk around with a neon sign saying ‘stupid’ on my head.”
There was always food. In a first for Israeli peacemakers, there was Chinese takeout in December at Mr. Kerry’s townhouse. At the King David hotel recently, Mr. Faraj gobbled up matzo, having developed a taste for it in Israeli prisons. When a snowstorm shuttered Washington offices — and supermarkets — Mr. Indyk’s wife, Gahl Burt, scrambled to assemble supper two nights running, only to discover too late that Ms. Livni was a vegetarian and Mr. Erekat did not eat fish.
Sometimes they sat in Mr. Erekat’s office in Jericho, where he has a blown-up photograph from his December trip to Hisham’s Palace with Mr. Indyk.
“I meant to take Martin to ruins to show him nothing lasts and life goes on,” Mr. Erekat explained. “These were great empires — they’re gone. I know that the Israeli occupation will go. I know.”
The first turning point came Nov. 5. After the second of Israel’s four promised batches of prisoners were released, amid anguished protests in Jerusalem, various plans for nearly 20,000 settlement units were pushed forward over five days (some were later withdrawn). The Palestinians were outraged not only at the scale, but that Israelis were suggesting they had agreed to trade construction for prisoners, when in fact the “price” was a pledge not to join international agencies and conventions for the duration of the talks.
At a negotiating session in a Jerusalem suburb, Mr. Erekat pulled from his bag the computer disk he always carried containing accession papers and threatened to join 15 conventions “tomorrow.” He and Mr. Shtayyeh drove directly to Bethlehem to submit their resignations (only Mr. Shtayyeh’s was accepted).
Mr. Kerry condemned the construction, asking in a television interview, “How can you say we’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?”
Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested shifting to separate talks with the Americans, with the idea that the Israeli and Palestinian publics might more easily swallow a third round of prisoner releases and settlement announcements if they came with substantive progress. In a sign of progress, Mr. Abbas suggested that the Israeli military could remain in the West Bank for five years and then be replaced by either NATO or United States troops. Israel did delay settlement after December’s prisoner release, but only for the few days of a Kerry visit.
It was Feb. 19, at the five-star Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, that Mr. Kerry’s team began to believe their mission was doomed. President Abbas, who is 79, told Mr. Kerry he had been battling a cold for two weeks and was “very stressed.” The two men talked for two hours but got nowhere. A month later at the White House, President Obama offered the framework outlines — though no document was ever shared — and Mr. Abbas simply did not respond.
“He had shut down,” said one of several American officials interviewed. “As he comes to the end of his life and certainly the end of his term in office, he’s fed up.”
“His experience in the last nine months, of settlements gone wild,” this official added, “has just, I think, convinced him that he doesn’t have a partner.”
As the March 29 deadline approached for releasing the final prisoners, a lingering problem re-emerged. Mr. Kerry had allowed the Palestinians to believe Arab-Israeli citizens would be among those freed without securing such a commitment from Mr. Netanyahu. The Israelis said no one would be let go unless talks were extended.
Mr. Kerry dangled the prospect of freeing Jonathan J. Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel, despite White House reservations. But on April 1, even as Mr. Netanyahu was gathering votes for the new deal, an old tender for 708 apartments in East Jerusalem’s Gilo, was republished. Soon Mr. Abbas was on television signing documents to join the international conventions.
Still they kept talking. Negotiators barely slept for three weeks. Last Tuesday, the latest package was presented at a meeting variously described as “serious,” “positive” and “excellent.”
“We had ups and downs: One day if you would ask me I would tell you it’s going to happen, the next day I would tell you it’s not going to happen,” one Israeli said. That Tuesday, he added, “we felt maybe we are going to make it. They asked, ‘Let’s meet the next day.’ ”
But the next day, Palestine Liberation Organization leaders held hands aloft with those from Hamas. Israel immediately canceled the scheduled negotiating session, and 24 hours later, froze talks indefinitely.
Syria Announces Assad’s Bid for Re-election as War Rages
By BEN HUBBARD
APRIL 28, 2014
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government announced on Monday that President Bashar al-Assad would compete in a presidential election scheduled for June 3 that is widely seen as an attempt to enhance his perceived legitimacy despite a raging civil war that has pushed his government out of much of the country and displaced millions of citizens.
Although recent legal changes mean that Mr. Assad will run opposed for the first time since he took over from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, his victory is considered a foregone conclusion, and most expect it will do nothing to stop the war.
The Syrian election comes amid a series of votes across the Arab world that — despite purporting to show democracy in action — indicate how little the protest movements known collectively as the Arab Spring have affected the region’s traditional power structures.
Egypt has engaged in a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent before a vote that will almost surely name Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the former defense minister, president. Algeria on Monday witnessed the swearing in of its ailing septuagenarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Lebanese leaders continue to barter over who will become their new, largely symbolic head of state.
In Syria, election preparations have highlighted the yawning gaps between the supporters of Mr. Assad’s government, who say he is fighting a necessary war against foreign-backed extremists, and the opposition, which considers him a brutal dictator who must be overthrown.
After Mr. Assad’s candidacy was announced, armed men sped through parts of Damascus, firing guns in the air, and hundreds of people, many of them high school students and government employees, staged pro-Assad rallies.
“I love President Bashar and my whole family loves him,” said Rania, a high school student at a rally who declined to give her last name to the foreign news media.
“I don’t care about the other candidates,” she said. “I don’t even know their names.”
The news barely made a ripple in opposition areas.
“What do you think of this criminal and killer who wants to dress up in a new outfit and say, ‘I’m the legitimate president?’ ” said Tamam Hazim, an antigovernment activist reached through Skype in Aleppo, where he said his home had recently been destroyed by a bomb dropped from a government helicopter.
Speaking of Mr. Assad, he cited an Arabic proverb: “He has destroyed it and is sitting on the ruins.”
The lack of reliable polling inside the country makes it impossible to gauge how much support Mr. Assad has, although many Syrians have stuck by him, seeing him as a symbol of the nation or fearing that an opposition victory could lead to Islamist rule.
The Syrian National Coalition, the group of Syrian exiles that purports to lead the uprising, has failed to gather significant support inside the country and has called the vote a farce.
The Syrian government has given no indication of how it will gather votes from the millions of Syrians who have sought refuge from the violence in neighboring countries, other than saying Syrian expatriates can vote in their embassies. Nor has it explained how it will organize voting in areas controlled by armed rebel groups. Instead, the state news media has focused on the strict formality of the process.
Holding an election in such circumstances has less to do with determining the will of the people than with projecting an image of normality and power, said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University who wrote a book examining the structure of Mr. Assad’s rule.
“It is basically a message to opponents and to potential opponents that you don’t stand a chance, that we are so powerful that we can rig an election in the middle of a civil war,” he said.
The other six people who have announced their intention to run include businessmen, former ministers, members of Parliament and one woman. None have made any public statements about the policies they would pursue nor implied that they would lead the country better than Mr. Assad.
Undermining the government’s portrayal of its complete control, antigovernment activists reported on Monday that the Nusra Front, the Qaeda affiliate in Syria, had agreed to restore electricity to government-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo in exchange for reduced shelling of opposition neighborhoods.
Rebels who took over the power station that supplies the city shut off the electricity to government-held neighborhoods 10 days ago to protest continued government attacks, according to Aleppo-based activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain through contacts inside Syria.
After mediation by prominent Aleppo residents, the Nusra Front and other rebel groups turned the power back on, activists said. An online statement attributed to the Nusra Front warned that if the government did not stop striking opposition neighborhoods, it would cut the power again.
“Our response will be harsher than before,” the statement said.
The government did not comment.
Yemen calls for help to tackle multiple crises in Arab world's poorest country
London conference discusses ways of helping country suffering from poverty, malnutrition and grave security problems
Ian Black, Middle East editor
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 April 2014 12.00 BST
Yemen is urging the international community to boost efforts to tackle its multiple crises of poverty, economic underdevelopment, resource depletion and grave humanitarian problems as it continues fighting a resurgent al-Qaida.
Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the country's foreign minister, said that Tuesday's meeting of the Friends of Yemen forum in London should focus on the economy, unemployment and poverty.
"To stabilise the political situation people need to see the standards of living, jobs and the services they lack," he told the Guardian. "The Friends of Yemen need to prioritise so we can use the funds that are available wisely."
The Friends of Yemen, set up in 2010, comprises 40 states and organisations which co-ordinate international support for the Arab world's poorest country. It suffers from the second highest malnutrition rates in the world, a lack of water and medicine, weak governance, corruption and grave security problems.
Apart from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) – the target of controversial US drone strikes – it also faces Houthi rebels and separatists in the south.
Yemeni military officials said on Tuesday that troops, backed by aircraft, had launched a major offensive to drive Aqap out of towns in Shabwa province. Five soldiers were reported killed in the fighting, in which hundreds of volunteers from a militia known as the Popular Committees were also taking part, news agencies reported.
Half of the 24 million population needs some kind of humanitarian assistance, the UN says. Tuesday's conference is being chaired jointly by Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Yemen, said Qirbi, deserved help because unlike other Arab countries where popular uprisings had taken place it had managed to avoid civil war and, with Gulf Arab and western support, launched a successful transition process following the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after months of protests.
"We need more development, improved security, better economic growth," he said. "We have about $8bn [£4.75bn] allocated from donors, so far only about 25% of it has been spent. We have to work harder on better implementation."
The government recently set up an "executive bureau" in Sana'a to absorb aid more efficiently and detail the status of outstanding donor pledges.
Yemen is currently facing severe fuel shortages and there have been reports that the government will not be able to pay its own employees in two months without a massive cash injection.
After conducting a successful national dialogue it is now drawing up a new constitution for a new federal state with elections due next year.
"Yemen is both a forgotten success as well as a forgotten crisis," Alan Duncan, the UK international development minister, told a pre-conference seminar organised by Oxfam on Monday.
"Back in 2011 it was the transition in Yemen that seemed to be the most fragile and dangerous of the Arab spring. Now it has made more progress than most towards a peaceful political transition."
But its economic problems are worsening by the day. "While Yemen is wrestling with its new constitution, millions are going hungry, water is running out and dwindling fuel stocks are crippling production ahead of the harvest," warned Colette Fearon, Oxfam's Yemen director. "You cannot build a new country without food and water."
Qirbi said Yemeni security forces had not yet determined whether the Aqap leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, had been killed in three days of air strikes and drone attacks last week, which left a death toll of around 65 – fuelling criticism that counter-terror operations that kill innocent bystanders may end up recruiting more terrorists. DNA tests were being carried out to establish whether he and master bomber Ibrahim al-Asiri had died.
In the last few years the US, Britain and other western countries have focused on the Aqap threat following several attempts to bomb planes. Yemen has become an active frontline for al-Qaida as its Pakistani "core" has been weakened.
"Terrorist attacks in Yemen have a very negative impact on our image," said Qirbi. "It is one of the factors that has contributed to our economic ills because of the lack of investment and because tourism has almost disappeared.
"But the use of force is not the only solution for terrorism. In Yemen we are developing a comprehensive strategy that will look at the growth of terrorism, how people are recruited, funding and how to deal with it from an Islamic perspective, an economic one, and so on."
Meanwhile, Yemeni civil society groups have protested at being excluded from the Friends of Yemen event.
"The London conference has totally ignored Yemen's civil society and its vital role in the country's national development," a statement said.
"This exclusion takes place despite the fact that our organizations have and continue to carry out extremely important development and humanitarian operations perhaps not deliverable either by the government or international humanitarian agencies operating in the country."
Nigerian community fights Shell in UK court over oil spills
High court hearing comes ahead of case due to be brought next year by Bodo community in fight for compensation
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 April 2014 09.15 BST
Britain's high court will on Tuesday hold a pre-trial hearing ahead of a court case due to be held next year brought by around 15,000 members of Nigeria's Bodo community against oil giant Shell.
The residents are seeking compensation from the British-Dutch company over two oil spills in 2008, having failed to reach a compensation deal last year.
London-based law firm Leigh Day, which represented Bodo residents in the talks and will do so in next year's court case, called Shell's initial offer "insulting."
Sources familiar with the talks said Shell proposed a settlement of 7.5 billion naira ($46 million, 35 million euros).
Lawyers for the villagers say the local environment was devastated by the two spills, depriving thousands of subsistence farmers and fishermen of their livelihoods.
Martyn Day, senior partner at Leigh Day, said each individual would end up with around 275,000 naira (1,300 euros, $1,700) after subtracting a lump sum to be paid to the community.
He claims most of the fishermen affected by the spills earn $5,000 to $8,400 per year.
"Our clients know how much their claims are worth and will not be bought off cheaply," Day said in a statement.
He called this week's court deliberations a "highly significant hearing".
According to Leigh Day, experts estimate the spills in the cluster of fishing communities in Rivers state to be between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels.
Shell admitted liability for the spills in 2011 but disputes the amount of oil spilled and the extent of the damage.
Nigeria is Africa's biggest crude producer, but much of the Niger Delta oil region remains deeply impoverished.
Decades of spills have caused widespread pollution in the region.
Shell, the biggest producer in Nigeria, says sabotage and oil theft are the main causes of spills, but activists allege the firm has not done enough to prevent such incidents and clean them when they occur.
In a statement Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) acknowledged the company's liability.
"From the outset, we've accepted responsibility for the two operational spills in Bodo in 2008," he said.
"They're deeply regrettable operational accidents, and they absolutely should not have happened.
"We want to fairly compensate those who have been genuinely affected as quickly as possible and clean up all areas where oil has been spilled from our facilities, including the many parts of Bodo which have been severely impacted by oil theft, illegal refining and sabotage activities."
According to Sunmonu, this week's hearings will address certain "technical, but highly important, legal questions regarding the interpretation of Nigerian law", adding they believed the case should be heard in Nigeria.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika sworn in for fourth term as Algerian president
Frail president makes inauguration speech after election victory dismissed by opponents as unfair
Agencies in Algiers
theguardian.com, Monday 28 April 2014 18.18 BST
Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been sworn in for a fourth term as Algeria's president after he won an election that opponents dismissed as unfair and returned to power for another five years.
Sitting in a wheelchair and dressed in a navy three-piece suit and crimson tie, the 77-year-old placed his right hand on the Qur'an as he repeated in a frail voice the oath read out by the head of the country's supreme court, Slimane Boudi.
Bouteflika, who was also in a wheelchair when he cast his ballot in the 17 April, has hardly been seen in public since a stroke confined him to hospital in Paris for three months last year.
Official results showed he won 81.5% of the vote in the election marred by low turnout and fraud claims by opponents, including main rival Ali Benflis, who achieved 12.2%.
In a brief inauguration speech before senior Algerian officials, diplomats and other delegates, Bouteflika stumbled on his words as he thanked the security forces and observers for "ensuring the election was run smoothly". He paid tribute to voters and other candidates in the election, which he hailed as a "day of celebration and democracy for Algeria".
At the start of the ceremony, Bouteflika sat with his hands on his knees as he inspected soldiers following a display of their weapons outside the beachfront Palace of Nations in Algiers. After shaking hands with the head of a constitutional panel, Mourad Medelci, and members of his government, the president was greeted by celebratory ululations.
The 30-minute ceremony ended with a standing ovation for Bouteflika and a rendition of Algeria's national anthem.
Bouteflika followed it up by paying tribute to those killed in the war of independence at El Alia cemetery, the final resting place of other former presidents.
The inauguration was boycotted by the opposition, including five parties which had called on their supporters to stay away from the election. Among the absentees was Benflis, who has refused to recognise Bouteflika's re-election, saying that doing so would make him "complicit in fraud".
One of the few remaining veterans of the war of independence against France, Bouteflika first came to power in 1999, but has been dogged by ill health and corruption scandals. He remains popular with many Algerians who credit him with helping to end a devastating civil war and contain Arab spring protests.
But many people had been clamouring for change. Algeria has witnessed more self-immolations than Tunisia since 2011 and many people express astonishment that a state with foreign exchange reserves of $182bn (£108bn) does not do more to improve their lives.
There were deadly riots in January 2011, when revolts were spreading elsewhere in the region, but the regime snuffed out the protests in Algeria with a sprinkling of political reforms and pay rises.
Bouteflika's third term was overshadowed by speculation about his health and rumours he had died, after he underwent surgery in Paris in 2005 for a stomach ulcer. He was hospitalised in France again in April 2013 after a stroke. He chaired only two cabinet meetings that year.
He said on Monday that he would continue to seek from "international partners" backing for Algeria's "development based on mutual support and the transfer of technology". He promised the advent of a "diversified economy" in a country heavily reliant on hydrocarbons, which account for 97% of exports.
Plea for Conference on Nuke-Free Mideast
by Naharnet Newsdesk
29 April 2014, 08:35
The Nonaligned Movement, representing over 100 developing countries, urged Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the United States, Britain and Russia on Monday to convene a long-delayed international conference to promote a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa made the appeal on behalf of NAM members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the opening of the third and final preparatory conference for next year's review of the landmark 1970 agreement aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear arms.
He reiterated NAM's demand that Israel, the only country in the region that has not joined the NPT, "renounce possession of nuclear weapons" and join the treaty without delay. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons but has never admitted it.
The Arab proposal for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East is designed to pressure Israel to give up its undeclared arsenal.
At the last NPT review conference in May 2010, the 189 member nations that are party to the NPT called for convening a conference in 2012 "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction."
It was scheduled to take place in Finland in late 2012, but the United States said it would be delayed, apparently to save Israel embarrassment for refusing to attend, and no new date has been set.
Natalegawa said NAM parties to the NPT are seriously concerned that the meeting has not been held, which could have "negative repercussions" on the NPT and the 2015 review conference "and the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime as a whole."
He urged the U.N., U.S., Britain and Russia to focus on convening the conference "at the earliest date in 2014," and to seek "credible assurances" in advance "regarding the unconditional participation of Israel, the only country that has not declared its participation in the conference."
Iran, Israel and Arab states did take part in an informal meeting last October in the Swiss village of Glion near Montreux on prospects for an international conference on banning nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and there have been follow-up meetings. Veteran Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, who is serving as "facilitator" of the conference, has also attended.
U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane told Monday's meeting that efforts to convene a conference in Helsinki have benefited from "the constructive engagement" of Mideast states in Glion in recent months.
"As we work to build on the gains we have made, I continue to hope that the conference will be convened as soon as possible in 2014," she said.
Mexican mayor arrested in key drug port for Knights Templar cartel
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, April 28, 2014 18:31 EDT
The mayor of a town that serves as one of Mexico’s key drug trafficking ports was detained Monday for alleged ties to the Knights Templar drug cartel.
Authorities arrested Arquimides Oseguera for his “alleged relationship with the leader of the criminal organization, and his probable participation in crimes like kidnapping and extortion,” said Michoacan federal commissioner Alfredo Castillo.
Oseguera is the third Michoacan official arrested this month for alleged links to the Knights Templar, which has terrorized the region for years.
The Pacific coast town of Lazaro Cardenas, where Oseguera was mayor, is home to about 180,000 people.
It was placed under military control last November as authorities investigated charges of official corruption and to stop the import from Asia of chemicals used by the Knights Templar to make methamphetamine.
The arrest coincided with the start of a gun registration program aimed at demobilizing Michoacan’s vigilante militias.
The civilian “self-defense” groups sprang up starting a year ago to fight the Knights Templar, accusing local police of being unwilling or unable to stop the gang’s extortion rackets and kidnappings.
The federal government had tolerated the expansion of the vigilante militias, but recently has been calling for them to disarm and join a Rural Defense Corps.
Since earlier this year, Mexico has deployed a vast military and police operation to pacify the restive state of Michoacan and to fight the Knights Templar.
Three of the cartel’s four top leaders have been killed or captured since the operation began.
Former school teacher Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, a top leader who has spoken in videos produced by the cartel, remains at large.