NASA warned plan to send humans to Mars may fail
Jun 06, 2014 by Jean-Louis Santini
The US space agency NASA has been warned that its mission to send humans to Mars will fail unless its revamps its methods and draws up a clear, well-planned strategy to conquer the red planet.
The National Research Council said in a congressionally-mandated report that Washington should use "stepping stones" to achieve its goal of a manned flight to Mars.
This could involve exploring an asteroid, building a moon outpost or building more international cooperation with countries like China.
"To continue on the present course... is to invite failure, disillusionment and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best," said the NRC's 286-page report.
NASA welcomed the report's findings, saying it was consistent with the agency's Mars plan approved by Congress and President Barack Obama's administration.
It promised to "thoroughly review the report and all of its recommendations" but insisted that it was worthwhile to set a goal of walking on Mars to set the bar high for other, parallel projects.
"The horizon goal for human space exploration is Mars. All long-range space programs, by all potential partners, for human space exploration converge on this goal," it said in a statement.
"A sustainable program of human deep space exploration must have an ultimate, 'horizon' goal that provides a long-term focus that is less likely to be disrupted by major technological failures and accidents along the way and the vagaries of the political process and economic scene."
Journalists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California are shown April 9, 2014, a rocket-powered, flying saucer
To date the world's space agencies have only managed to send unmanned robotic rovers to Mars, the latest being NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, which touched down in August 2012.
The US space agency's older Opportunity rover has been in operation for more than 10 years.
But advancing human exploration into the outer reaches of space will require decades of work, hundreds of billions of dollars of funding and "significant risk to human life," according to the NRC report.
US-China space cooperation?
That, the report said, makes it impossible for the United States to go to Mars within the current US space budget.
Instead, it called for increased cooperation with other nations, including with space rival China, as well as funding from the private sector and other sources.
Current federal law bars NASA from participating in bilateral programs with China, which the National Research Council warned "reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars."
"Given the rapid development of China's capabilities in space, it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to future international partnerships."
The report's authors said that returning to the moon would foster better international cooperation given the interest about the destination in other countries, and such a mission would help develop technology to land and eventually live on Mars.
The Obama administration is opposed to another moon landing, saying such a mission would be too costly. It wants instead to focus on capturing an asteroid and placing it into the Moon's orbit for future exploration.
The NRC highlighted three potential pathways to Mars, two of which include a return to the moon. The third is along the lines of the Obama administration's asteroid mission.
"It's probably the frankest assessment that there is no public demand for space exploration, that we really don't have a goal clearly stated and that the program that is being carried out won't get us anywhere," said expert John Logsdon.
However, the former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute said: "I don't think the report will change anything."
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Bergdahl Was in Unit Known for Its Troubles
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and ERIC SCHMITT
JUNE 7, 2014
The platoon was, an American military official would assert years later, “raggedy.”
On their tiny, remote base, in a restive sector of eastern Afghanistan at an increasingly violent time of the war, they were known to wear bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Their crude observation post was inadequately secured, a military review later found. Their first platoon leader, and then their first platoon sergeant, were replaced relatively early in the deployment because of problems.
But the unit — Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company in the First Battalion, 501st Regiment — might well have remained indistinguishable from scores of other Army platoons in Afghanistan had it not been for one salient fact: This was the team from which Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared on June 30, 2009.
In the years since Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, and even more since his release last week in a contentious prisoner exchange for five Taliban fighters, much has been written suggesting that he was a misfit soldier in something of a misfit platoon that stumbled through its first months in Afghanistan and might have made it too easy for him to walk away, as his fellow soldiers say he did.
Indeed, an internal Army investigation into the episode concluded that the platoon suffered from lapses in discipline and security in the period before Sergeant Bergdahl — a private first class at the time who was promoted while in captivity — disappeared into Paktika Province, two officials briefed on the report said.
But their problems in many ways reflected those of the Pentagon’s strategy writ large across Afghanistan at that moment of the war. The platoon was sent to a remote location with too few troops to seriously confront an increasingly aggressive insurgency, which controlled many villages in the region. The riverbeds they used as roads were often mined with improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s; simply getting supplies or traveling back to their home operating base could be a nerve-racking ordeal.
American combat fatalities in Afghanistan in 2009, the year the Second Platoon arrived, would double from the year before. By year’s end, President Obama would tear up the military strategy that had spread American troops thin across the rugged country and order a major surge of troops.
As they settled into their wartime routines in the spring of 2009, the soldiers of Second Platoon knew that they controlled little more than what they could survey from their outposts, several members of the platoon said. Their heavily armored trucks, known as MRAPs, protected them from the buried explosives they encountered, but the fear those mines instilled was real.
To pass the time on long trips outside the wire, some in the platoon would make wagers on when a roadside-bomb attack might come. “We’d take bets on this one stretch of road, how many I.E.D.s are we going to hit, or who is going to get hit,” said Josh Cornelison, the platoon’s medic, describing it as the sort of humor that came only from soldiers who have already been through a bomb blast. Mr. Cornelison was one of several members of the platoon who spoke about the deployment. He and another soldier who spoke on the record have been discussing Sergeant Bergdahl widely in the news media. But other members of the unit who spoke on the condition of anonymity offered similar accounts.
His former platoon mates gave sharply contradictory accounts of how Sergeant Bergdahl viewed the war, and America’s proper role in it.
To many of those soldiers, Sergeant Bergdahl was viewed as standoffish or eccentric, smoking a pipe instead of spitting tobacco, as so many soldiers do, and reading voraciously when others napped or watched videos. But he was not isolated from his platoon mates, some said. And while he was, like other soldiers in the platoon, often disappointed or confused by their mission in Paktika, some of his peers also said that Sergeant Bergdahl seemed enthusiastic about fighting, particularly after the platoon was ambushed several weeks before his disappearance.
“He’d complain about not being able to go on the offensive, and being attacked and not being able to return fire,” said Gerald Sutton, who knew Sergeant Bergdahl from spending time together on their tiny outpost, Observation Post Mest Malak, near the village of Yahya Khel, about 50 miles west of the Pakistani border.
Mr. Sutton said he had struggled to square the popular portrayal of Sergeant Bergdahl as brooding and disenchanted with the soldier he knew. “He wanted to take the fight to the enemy and do the mission of the infantry,” he said, adding, “He was a good soldier, and whenever he was told to do something, he would do it.”
Mr. Cornelison made it his job to get to know the men he might someday have to save. He said Sergeant Bergdahl was cagey, never telling anyone his full personal story, sharing a snippet with one soldier, another snippet with someone else.
“He got excited during certain parts of fighting, but for the vast majority of the time, he was disillusioned when we had to be boots-on-the-ground infantrymen,” Mr. Cornelison said. However, he said, Sergeant Bergdahl showed more interest in humanitarian activities, like passing out food or medical supplies to Afghan villagers or helping Afghan soldiers repair their buildings, and seemed disappointed that the Army was not more like “a kind of Peace Corps.”
At the time Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared, the platoon was straddling a moment of changing American military strategy and intensifying Taliban violence. The United States had fewer than 60,000 troops in the country at the time, with units like Blackfoot Company stretched across some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and unforgiving terrain. By the end of 2009, Mr. Obama would acknowledge the shortcomings of the strategy and call for a “surge” in American forces that, by 2011, would number about 100,000.
The one major firefight that Sergeant Bergdahl experienced happened in May 2009, after his platoon was marooned several days on a mission near the village of Omna, his fellow soldiers said. As they traveled down a mountain, the lone route they could use, Taliban fighters unleashed what soldiers call a “complex attack,” blowing up an improvised explosive device within the column of trucks, then firing on it with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic weapons. For more than half an hour, turret gunners returned fire, while the rest of the platoon took shelter inside armored vehicles. To their surprise, no soldier suffered significant injuries.
Mr. Cornelison, the medic, recalled watching as three militants were killed during that fight. “When you see a human being almost split in half from a .50-cal, it’s one of those things you are going to remember,” he said, referring to the machine guns on their trucks.
Over the course of its yearlong deployment, the platoon would lose none of its two dozen soldiers. But their battalion lost men, and many soldiers have blamed the search for Sergeant Bergdahl for some of those deaths.
Yet two of the biggest dramas the platoon faced in the short time before Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared had nothing to do with combat, according to several members of the platoon.
Sorting out the facts and the controversy surrounding the release of the lone American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict.
Their platoon commander, who some described as less than inspiring, was relieved weeks into the deployment, replaced by the platoon’s sergeant first class, who was popular and respected by the troops. Then, a few months later, the sergeant found himself in trouble after pictures appeared online showing some in the platoon wearing bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Such garb was not uncommon at remote combat outposts, but it angered and embarrassed commanders, and it helped lead to the sergeant’s dismissal soon after Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared.
Just how and why Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared remains a mystery to his fellow soldiers.
They say they do not remember his leaving behind any note or explanation. They said they were unaware that he had previously wandered off the base, as the internal Army review reported.
And they vehemently disputed reports that implied he had seen a vehicle from his unit run over an Afghan child, which Sergeant Bergdahl had apparently told his parents in an email before his disappearance. That never happened, his fellow soldiers said.
Mr. Sutton said the one time he remembered Sergeant Bergdahl talking about leaving, it seemed clear — at least then — that he was joking.
“He said, ‘What would it look like if I got lost in the mountains?’ ” Mr. Sutton recalled him saying. “ ‘Do you think I could make it to China or India on foot?’ I genuinely thought he was just kidding.”
How he slipped off the base is another matter of debate. The observation post was rectangular, shaped like a horseshoe, perhaps 150 yards long by 100 yards wide. One end backed up to a hill near where a contingent of Afghan National Police was staying and was not fully encircled with concertina razor wire; Sergeant Bergdahl had been increasingly spending time with the Afghan policemen, who helped provide security for the back of the outpost.
Six soldiers were supposed to be keeping watch throughout the night — one each in the platoon’s five MRAPs, and one in a post up the hill.
Sergeant Bergdahl spent his last night inside the main part of the outpost, and some soldiers have theorized that he could have left the base through the rear section that was not covered with razor wire, walking past the Afghan police officers he had befriended.
The outpost, one soldier said, “was meant to keep people out, not to keep people in.”
As Bowe Bergdahl Heals, Details Emerge of His Captivity
By ERIC SCHMITT
JUNE 7, 2014
WASHINGTON — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has told medical officials that his captors locked him in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape, and while military doctors say he now is physically able to travel he is not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family, according to American officials who have been briefed on his condition.
Sergeant Bergdahl, who was released last Saturday to American commandos in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains in a military hospital in Germany without access to news media — and thus is oblivious to the raging criticism from some in Congress about the prisoner swap and even from members of his former platoon who say he deserted them. He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, and objects when hospital staff address him as sergeant instead of private first class, his rank when he was captured nearly five years ago after walking off a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the official said.
While medical officials are pressing him for details about his time in captivity to help begin repairing his medical and psychological wounds, these specialists have not yet focused on the critical questions about why he left his outpost and how he was captured by insurgents, the officials said — and there is no predetermined schedule for doing so.
“Physically, he could be put on a plane to the U.S. tomorrow, but there are still a couple of mental criteria to address: the family unification piece and the media exposure piece,” said one American official who has been briefed on the sergeant’s condition.
From the initial briefings given to senior military and civilian officials in the past week, Sergeant Bergdahl, 28, in some ways seems healthier than expected. He suffers from skin and gum disorders typical of poor hygiene and exposure, but otherwise is physically sound, one official said. He weighs about 160 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame, and is sleeping about seven hours a night.
He shows few if any signs of the malnourishment and other ailments that Obama administration officials said he was suffering when they saw a video of him that the Taliban made in December and released a month later — a video so alarming, American officials have said, it made his release an urgent priority. As talks for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release proceeded after that, his captors may have fed him better, allowed him greater movement and even brought him medical care in preparation for his departure, American officials said.
But Sergeant Bergdahl’s relatively stable health may be cited by those who object to the prisoner swap and have said his condition should not have been grounds for the administration to move rapidly ahead with releasing the Guantánamo detainees without informing Congress.
Last week, he took a short walk just outside his private room at Landstuhl, an American official said. By midweek, he put on his Army uniform for the first time in five years, and was taking longer strolls through the hospital corridors, still conversing only with the team of specialists assigned to help him. The preliminary reports emerging from his doctors and other specialists in Germany offer the most detailed account so far of Sergeant Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition after a week in recovery from an ordeal whose ending has ignited angry reactions from soldiers in his former unit, members of Congress who accuse President Obama of failing to inform them of the secret talks to free the soldier, and other critics who say liberating the Taliban detainees amounts to bargaining with terrorists.
Two American officials, including one senior Defense Department official, who have been briefed on the reports spoke Saturday on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on the public release of information about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health and an impending investigation into any possible misconduct surrounding the circumstance of his leaving the outpost.
A statement from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Friday said Sergeant Bergdahl was showing “signs of improvement,” was talking with the medical staff, and was “becoming more engaged in his treatment-care plan.” But the statement gave no hint when Sergeant Bergdahl would leave for the next destination in a multistep process: an evaluation at an Army medical center in Texas and a reunion with his family.
Late Saturday, the F.B.I. said the Bergdahl family in Idaho had received threats. Federal agents, working with state and local law enforcement authorities, were “taking each threat seriously,” an F.B.I. statement said. Officials declined to give other details.
This week, the doctors have been treating Sergeant Bergdahl for possible abuse at the hands of his captors, first the Taliban and later the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned militant group that held him at one or more locations in the mountainous tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, American intelligence officials have said.
“He’s said that they kept him in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks, possibly months,” said one American official. CNN reported Friday that Sergeant Bergdahl said he was held in a metal box or cage, but the officials on Saturday offered new details. He was kept there apparently as punishment for one or possibly two attempted escapes, as first reported by the Daily Beast website last week and confirmed by an American official.
“It’s safe to assume” that Sergeant Bergdahl was “held in harsh conditions,” a senior Defense Department official said Saturday. “These are Taliban, not wet nurses.” Details of other mistreatment were not released.
When the medical specialists deem Sergeant Bergdahl ready, his next step will be longer-term therapy and counseling at a military medical center in San Antonio before a carefully managed homecoming in Hailey, Idaho. At some point, he will speak by phone with his family, and be reunited with them.
Officials would not disclose if Sergeant Bergdahl has made any special requests. One thing, however, that does rub him wrong is when hospital staff call him “sergeant,” the result of two automatic promotions while a captive.
“He says, ‘Don’t call me that,’ ” said one American official. “ ‘I didn’t go before the boards. I didn’t earn it.’ ”
GOP Senators Demand Answers On Bergdahl, Skip Out On Classified Briefing On Bergdahl
Saxby Chambliss (R.GA) skipped the classified briefing for U.S. Senators this week, choosing instead to appear on Fox News. John McCain (R-AZ) went, asked one question and abruptly left, storming out to hold a press conference. Rachel Maddow noted this increasing form of political lying in Washington: complaining about not getting enough information and then not bothering to show up.
Bowe Bergdahl parents receive death threats
FBI investigates threats sent to father of American soldier as further details emerge about harsh conditions of his captivity
theguardian.com, Sunday 8 June 2014 11.47 BST
US authorities are investigating death threats sent to the parents of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier released by the Taliban last week after five years in captivity.
The FBI is examining four threatening emails sent to Bob Bergdahl and his wife Jani.
One of the emailed threats was sent to Bergdahl's father on the day a rally in their hometown of Hailey, Idaho, celebrating his release was cancelled abruptly, amid controversy over the circumstances of his handover to US commandos in Afghanistan on 31 May.
Meanwhile, more detail has emerged about the harsh conditions of his captivity, according to anonymous sources. Bergdahl, 28, has told doctors that he was locked in a metal cage in darkness for weeks at a time and was tortured and beaten by his captors, according to US officials quoted anonymously by the Associated Press and the New York Times.
Bergdahl was held in a metal cage as punishment for trying to escape, the New York Times reported, and is now being treated in a medical facility in Germany for skin and gum disorders typical of poor hygiene.
The freed soldier is said to be physically ready to fly back to the US, but officials reportedly remain concerned that he is not yet emotionally ready to cope with the pressures of reuniting with his family or handling the intense media exposure surrounding his case.
Controversy has raged over Bergdahl's release since it emerged that five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo Bay were released in exchange. Critics of the deal have claimed that Bergdahl deserted his post and that six other US soldiers were killed in the initial efforts to find him.
It remains unclear how Berhdahl was captured nearly five years ago or why he walked off a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
A welcome home party for the soldier was cancelled last Wednesday as the furore refused to die down, with Bergdahl's parents reportedly under police protection at their home.
Hailey's police chief, Jeff Gunter, told Reuters that the four threatening emails were being investigated by the FBI. FBI spokesman William Facer said in a statement: "The FBI continues to monitor the situation in Hailey, Idaho. We are working jointly with our state and local partners and taking each threat seriously."
GOP To Block Bill That Would Help 40 Million People Because It Raises Taxes on Millionaires
By: Jason Easley
Saturday, June, 7th, 2014, 12:02 pm
Senate Republicans are signaling that they are going to block Elizabeth Warren’s bill to help 40 million students refinance their loans, because it would raise taxes on millionaires.
Sen Warren’s bill would allow students to refinance their old debt at today’s lower interest rates. In many cases, Warren’s bill would allow those who are burdened by student loan debt to slice their interest rate from 6% or 7% to 3.86%. Her legislation would help 40 million borrowers, and would be paid for by phasing in a new tax on millionaires in 2015.
President Obama gave the bill his full support today.
The president said:
I’ve taken action on my own to offer millions of students the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10% of their income. But Congress needs to do its part. The good news is that Senate Democrats are working on a bill that would help more young people save money. Just like you can refinance your mortgage at a lower interest rate, this bill would let you refinance your student loans. And we’d pay for it by closing loopholes that allow some millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than the middle class.
That’s the choice that your representatives in Congress will make in the coming weeks – protect young people from crushing debt, or protect tax breaks for millionaires. And while Congress decides what it’s going to do, I will keep doing whatever I can without Congress to help responsible young people pay off their loans – including new action I will take this week.
Although this bill has 35 Senate co-sponsors, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is signalling that he is going to block the legislation from passing. McConnell said, “This bill doesn’t make college more affordable, reduce the amount of money students will have to borrow, or do anything about the lack of jobs grads face in the Obama economy.”
The truth is that McConnell is going to obstruct a piece of legislation that would help 40 millions Americans save money and get out of debt, because he refuses raise taxes on a few thousand of the wealthiest Americans.
Forty million people are going to continue to be crushed by crippling student loan debt because Republicans refuse to raise taxes on millionaires. This is what Citizens United money is able to buy the conservative billionaires. Warren’s bill is a common sense proposal that would help tens of millions of people, but it will be obstructed because it would cost some millionaires their pocket change.
People are suffering because the wealthiest Americans are running the Republican Party. The likely fate of Warren’s bill is another example of why the nation must get the big donors out of our campaign finance system.
Ukraine, Russia Launch Crisis Talks on Gas, Insurgency
by Naharnet Newsdesk
09 June 2014, 13:39
Ukraine launched delicate dual-track diplomacy with Russia on Monday aimed at averting a debilitating gas cut and ending a bloody separatist insurgency by the end of the week.
The meetings in Brussels and Kiev throw down an immediate challenge to new President Petro Poroshenko's European commitment and vow to preserve the territorial integrity of the splintered ex-Soviet state.
The 48-year-old confectionery tycoon and political veteran promised late Sunday to end fighting "this week" in Ukraine's economically vital eastern rust belt that has claimed more than 200 lives.
And he affirmed after being sworn in as Ukraine's fifth president on Saturday that Kiev would sign a historic pact with the European Union that would finally wrest it out of Russia's orbit as soon as the end of the month.
But the eight-week insurgency that Kiev and the West accuse Russia of orchestrating raged unabated over the weekend.
Ukrainian military sources told AFP that militants had staged a wave of failed attacks on the international airport in the Russian border city of Lugansk after briefly seizing its counterpart in neighboring Donetsk late last month.
Intense artillery fire and air bombardments also continued in the rebel Donetsk region stronghold of Slavyansk -- an industrial city of 120,000 where many have been sheltering in basements for weeks.
The Ukrainian army also said pro-Russian gunmen had taken several of its soldiers prisoner overnight.
"Some were out in the field, but others were abducted," military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov wrote in a Facebook post.
"We are still learning the details of everything that happened."
The EU-mediated gas talks in Brussels come on the eve of a Russian deadline for Ukraine to cover a debt of nearly $4.4 billion (3.2 billion euros) or have its shipments end on Wednesday.
About 15 percent of Europe's gas from Russia transits through Ukraine -- dependence that EU nations have been trying to limit following similar disruptions in 2006 and 2009.
But analysts said the fuel freeze would also deal a bruising blow to a Ukrainian economy that the IMF already expects to contract by five percent this year.
Ukraine has refused to pay the bills in protest at Russia's decision to nearly double its neighbor’s rates in the wake of the February ouster of Kiev's Kremlin-backed president.
Sources said the pressure on all sides to agree greatly boosted the chances of a compromise being reached on Monday.
"There is a strong likelihood that this really will be the final meeting at which we expect to agree on a schedule of payments for the already delivered gas," a Russian source close to the negotiations told Moscow's Vedomosti business daily.
An unnamed Ukrainian official said he expected Kiev's Naftogaz state energy holding firm to make an immediate payment of $1.0 billion (730 million euros) for gas it received in the last two months of last year.
"Another $451 million may be paid in the near future," the Ukrainian source told the daily.
"And for April and May, we expect an initial payment of $500 million."
Moscow's VTB Capital investment bank said the price for future deliveries would probably hover around $360 per thousand cubic meters of gas -- a sum about halfway between Russia's old price and the one set after the rise to power of the new pro-Western authorities.
Poroshenko conceded upon taking the oath of office that the eastern uprising could not be resolved without the direct involvement of Russia.
The two sides conducted the first of what the Ukrainian leader said should be daily negotiations on Sunday involving a representative from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- a Vienna-based body that was first tasked with securing peace during the Cold War.
Poroshenko affirmed after that meeting that "we must end the fighting this week."
"For me, every day in which people die, every day in which Ukraine pays such a high price, is unacceptable."
But his pledge was immediately dismissed as political grandstanding by separatists who have taken effective control of a dozen towns and cities and are now seeking a formal invitation to join Russia.
"We are continuing to mobilize, preparing volunteers for the defense of Donetsk," the region's self-proclaimed deputy premier Andriy Purgin told Russia's Interfax news agency.
And Poroshenko himself did not spell out how he intended to make gunmen comply with the ceasefire or whether he would order a full military withdrawal.
Some analysts said the hurdles facing Poroshenko's presidency were too daunting to quickly surmount.
"Ukraine’s new president has inherited considerable political and economic problems, which are more likely to worsen than improve in 2014," said Chris Weafer of Moscow's Macro Advisory consultancy
German Foreign Minister Urges Kiev, Moscow to Talk
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 June 2014, 15:30
Germany's foreign minister said Sunday that only "substantial" talks between Moscow and Kiev would help defuse the Ukraine crisis, ahead of an upcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a German Sunday newspaper that a resolution was still far off but several developments had given rise to hope, such as the Ukrainian presidential vote, or the first meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents.
"But there can only then be real progress when there are direct, substantial talks between Moscow and Kiev," Steinmeier said in an interview with Tagesspiegel.
"That'll be our message when (Polish Foreign Minister) Radoslaw Sikorski and I speak with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in St. Petersburg on Tuesday," he added.
The meeting was agreed in January on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference before the crisis erupted but it is set to dominate the talks, a foreign ministry spokesman said last week.
Steinmeier also urged the Ukrainian government to retain a "sense of proportion" in its military operations against insurgents.
"The result of military operations in eastern Ukraine must not be that the separatists attract more members," he said.
He added that "in such a tense situation it is wise to proceed with the deployment of military means with caution and a sense of proportion."
And he called on both Russia and Ukraine to secure their common borders to prevent weapons and fighters crossing into eastern Ukraine.
To calm the situation in the Donbass region, which is largely in rebel hands, Russia should "publicly support Ukraine's territorial unity and refuse all attempts at separation", Steinmeier added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Russian President Pig Putin on the sidelines of D-Day ceremonies Friday and called on Moscow to "live up to its responsibility" to ease the Ukraine crisis, her spokesman said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin also met informally on the sidelines of the D-Day commemorations.
Worst Rebel Attack Yet on Lugansk Airport in East Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 June 2014, 16:03
Pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukraine's Western-backed government have launched their most serious attacks yet on Lugansk International Airport in the east of the country, a military source said Sunday.
The assaults, which took place Saturday evening and Sunday morning in the immediate wake of the inauguration of Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko, did not result in any injuries among the defenders, he said.
"It was clear the rebels were trying to destroy the building which controls the power supply to the airport," said the source, one of the Ukrainian paratroopers guarding the airport, talking to Agence France Presse by telephone.
"It's the first time we have had an attack of this kind. Up till now, we've only had a few skirmishes," said the soldier, who identified himself only as Sergiy.
Pro-Russian separatist proclaimed the independence of the "Lugansk People's Republic" in May, at about the same time as the neighboring "Donetsk People's Republic."
The two districts have been the scene of ceaseless fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian insurgents that have killed more than 200 people since mid-April.
When approached by AFP, a spokesman for the "Lugansk People's Republic" could not confirm the assaults on the airport, which has been closed for the past month because of the instability in the region.
The airport is one among very few areas in the Lugansk not controlled by the separatists, who have taken over most of the cities, set up numerous roadblocks and recently seized several checkpoints on the border with Russia.
The international airport at the nearby city of Donetsk briefly came under rebel control late last month.
The Ukrainian authorities took it back in severe fighting that cost the lives of dozens of fighters, mostly of Russian nationality, according to a report issued by Donetsk insurgents.
Poroshenko Meets Russia Envoy: We Must End the Fighting this Week
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 June 2014, 20:48
Ukraine's new Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko said on Sunday that fighting in the separatist east of the ex-Soviet country must stop by the end of the week.
"We must end the fighting this week. For me, every day in which people die, every day in which Ukraine pays such a high price, is unacceptable," Poroshenko said in a statement published on his official website.
"And to do that, we must restore the Ukrainian border so that the safety of each Ukrainian citizen is guaranteed."
His comments followed a round of talks with Moscow's ambassador to Kiev and an envoy from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and came a day after the 48-year-old confectionery tycoon was sworn into office as the fifth post-Soviet president of Ukraine.
Both militants and weapons have been crossing into Ukraine's industrial rustbelt from Russia since shortly after the insurgency began eight weeks ago.
Russian President Pig Putin snorted orders on Saturday for security at the mutual border to be stepped up -- a move demanded by both U.S. President Barack Obama and several European heads of state.
Jewish leaders call for Le Pen to be stripped of his immunity as an MEP
The founder of the Front National in France is facing fresh allegations of inciting racial hatred after racist comments
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Sunday 8 June 2014 22.47 BST
When France's Front National emerged victorious in the recent European elections, party president Marine Le Pen appeared to have succeeded in her quest to persuade the voting public it was no longer extreme, antisemitic, or a haven for Nazi apologists.
Madame Le Pen, however, was not counting on her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN founder and honorary president.
While she claims to have "de-demonised" the party - and threatens to sue anyone who calls it "extreme" right - Le Pen senior repeatedly confirms the old French epigram: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" (the more it changes, the more it's the same thing).
Jewish leaders have called on Le Pen, 85, was to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity as an MEP after acontroversial play on words linking "oven" with a celebrated Jewish singer in a video posted in the FN's website.
Launching into an attack on celebrities who have criticised the far-right party, including Madonna and tennis player turned musician Yannick Noah, Le Pen was asked about the French singer Patrick Bruel.
"On fera une fournée la prochaine fois" (next time we'll make a batch), he said. The word "four" translates as oven.
Louis Aliot, FN vice-president and Marine Le Pen's partner, described Le Pen senior's comments as "another bad term". "It's politically stupid and worrying," Aliot told Le Parisien newspaper.
Le Pen responded by describing Aliot's remarks as idiotic.
"I saw Mr Aliot's reaction; if there are people of my own camp who interpret it in that manner, it's because they are imbeciles," he said, adding: "I don't have to answer to him."
The row came just weeks after Le Pen said Africa's population explosion and, by extension, France's immigration "problem", could be solved by "Monseigneur Ebola", referring to the deadly virus.
European Jewish Congress President Dr Moshe Kantor called on the European Union to strip Jean-Marie Le Pen of his parliamentary immunity and for the French authorities to charge him with incitement to racial hatred.
"Le Pen has unmasked the true face of the far-right of Europe days after their electoral successes in the European Parliament," Kantor said. "While some have tried to whitewash and mainstream these parties, Le Pen's comments demonstrate that they still stand on foundations of hatred, antisemitism and xenophobia.
"The European Union should fight-back against these far-right and neo-Nazi parties by demonstrating zero tolerance for racial incitement and it can begin by stripping Le Pen of any immunity for prosecution he might hold as an MEP for these comments.
"The far-right and neo-Nazis in Europe are pushing the boundaries further and further and they are destroying our democracy and the future of a tolerant and peaceful Europe that took a long time to build."
Le Pen, who beat the Socialist candidate and qualified for the second round run-off for the presidential election in France in 2002, has been convicted of racism or inciting racial hatred at least six times and made provocative statements judged Holocaust denial. In September 1987, he said: "I ask myself several questions. I am not saying the gas chambers didn't exist. I haven't seen them mystelf. I haven't particularly studied the question. But I believe it's just a detail in the history of the second world war". He was fined 1.2 million francs (€183,200). In 1999 he was convicted in a German court of "minimising the Holocaust" and fined.
Nor is it the first time he has targeted Bruel, who he pointedly insists on calling Benguigui, Algerian-born Bruel's Algerian birth name.
He also physically assaulted a Socialist MEP in 1997, leading to his suspension from the European Parliament and a one-year ban on public office, advocated the forced isolation of those with HIV, accused former centre-right president Jacques Chirac of being "on the payroll of Jewish organisations", and made a pun over minister Michel Durafour's name, calling him "Durafour-crématoir" (Durafour crematory oven). Before the World Cup four years ago he complained the French squad contained too many non-white players, and in 2007 referred to Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father is Hungarian, as "the foreigner".
He sued Le Monde newspaper for defamation after it claimed he had practiced torture while serving in the French army during the war in Algeria, but lost the case in 2003.
Kosovo Polls Seen as Key Test for EU Ambitions Close
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 June 2014, 22:30
Kosovo's snap parliamentary election passed off peacefully on Sunday with Serbs in its restive northern region taking part for the first time in a possible boost for the country's EU hopes.
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, an ex-guerilla chief who has dominated politics since the country declared independence in 2008, is seeking re-election but faces a potential backlash in Europe's poorest country over high unemployment and rampant corruption.
A few polling stations remained open past the 1700 GMT closing time to allow late-comers to cast their ballot, but turnout was low at 42 percent.
Preliminary results were not expected until Monday, but the country's political class will be mostly pleased that polling in the northern Serb region passed off smoothly.
It was the first time voters in the region had taken part in a general election, following a historic EU-brokered accord between Kosovo and Serbia last year in which Belgrade agreed to recognize Pristina's authority over the entire Kosovan territory.
Although Serbia still rejects Kosovo's full independence, it had encouraged Kosovan Serbs to take part in the vote in order to strengthen its own EU entry talks.
Many of Kosovo's Serbs, who number around 120,000 in the country of 1.8 million, have reacted angrily to the agreement. Gangs of armed men trashed polling stations in the northern enclave during local elections last November. This time, there was no violence, although there appeared to be reluctance to take part in the polls.
The 46-year-old Thaci is seeking his third term as prime minister but has faced mounting criticism from voters angry about a sluggish economy and high unemployment.
"Thaci's victory has never been more uncertain," said political analyst Behlul Beqaj, although he added that a low turnout would work in Thaci's favor.
"Our state is a new European country with huge developing opportunities that we will use in the interest of the people," Thaci said after casting his ballot in downtown Pristina, accompanied by his wife.
Thaci's popularity soared when the former army commander declared the break from Serbia six years ago, but analysts say the sheen has started to fade.
"He has been weakened politically by his failure to address the main challenges in our society," said political analyst Nexhmedin Spahiu.
Landlocked Kosovo has one of the lowest living standards in Europe, with average monthly wages of 350 euros ($480), nearly half the population living in poverty and some 12 percent in extreme poverty.
Unemployment is stuck at 35 percent, rising to 55 percent among the young, according to the Kosovo Statistics Bureau.
At one Pristina polling station, a dozen people queued up to vote as soon as booths opened.
"We had high expectations from independence, but little came true," a 49-year-old driver told Agence France Presse after casting his ballot.
Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) had just 32 MPs in the outgoing parliament and had been ruling with support from a small Albanian party and parties of minority groups including Serbs, Bosniaks and Turks.
Observers expect a tight race between Thaci's center-left PDK and the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by former Pristina mayor Isa Mustafa.
Serbs in the north seemed reluctant to take part in the polls, despite the urging from Belgrade.
"Participation... and support for Serb representatives at this election is the civic and patriotic duty of every Serb citizen in Kosovo," the Serbian government said in a statement on Thursday.
But in the flashpoint northern town of Mitrovica as in other Serb-dominated towns in the north, few people showed up to cast their ballots, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.
Ever since Belgrade struck its deal with Pristina and began the process of handing control of this enclave over to Kosovo, locals have lost faith that Serbia will look after their interests.
Dragan Maksimovic, a 38-year old lawyer, decided not to vote.
"I do not like the way officials in Belgrade are treating us, trying to convince us that they know what is best for us," he told AFP.
"It means nothing to have Serb MPs in the Kosovo parliament as they only look to Belgrade and don't care about our problems."
Austrian Far-Right Leader Tells Erdogan 'Stay at Home'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 June 2014, 19:23
Austrian far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday to "stay at home," ahead of a controversial election rally planned in Vienna later this month.
"We don't need Erdogan in Vienna. I'll tell him right now: 'Erdogan, stay at home'," Freedom Party (FPOe) leader Strache told the daily Oesterreich.
Erdogan is expected to hold a rally in Vienna on June 19 in what is seen as a bid to win overseas votes ahead of presidential elections in August -- although he has yet to announce his candidacy.
An estimated 100,000 eligible Turkish voters live in Austria.
Last month, a similar rally in Germany was attended by some 20,000 Erdogan supporters. But it also drew some 40,000 protesters who blasted Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) as fascist and anti-democratic.
Erdogan has come under increasing pressure at home over the past year for what many perceive as a move towards a more authoritarian rule.
So far, no bilateral meetings have been planned for the Turkish premier during his Austrian visit.
"If he wants to come here on a state visit, he may of course. But he won't be meeting any politicians during his Vienna visit," said Strache.
"This is just a propaganda campaign for his Erdoganistan. I find this alarming," he added, insisting that Erdogan was seeking to establish a "parallel society" in Austria.
The populist Freedom Party (FPOe) opposes Turkey's proposed admission to the European Union and is also strongly anti-immigration and anti-Islam.
In recent EU elections, the FPOe -- which has been seeking an alliance with France's National Front and Italy's Northern League -- won 19.7 percent of votes, finishing third behind the ruling parties.
Childhood changes for Spain's eight-year-old queen-to-be
By Roland Lloyd Parry
June 8, 2014 12:14 AM
Spain's Princess Leonor, shown in Palma de Mallorca on April 8, 2012, will be the youngest direct royal heir in Europe when her father Felipe is crowned king
Madrid (AFP) - Like many eight-year-old girls, she eats in the school canteen and goes to ballet class. Her friends know her as Leonor -- but soon they will have to call her "Highness".
Her childhood will not be the same now that her grandfather Juan Carlos is stepping down as king of Spain.
Once her father Felipe is crowned king, she will no longer be "Infanta", but Princess -- and one day Queen. She will be the youngest direct royal heir in Europe.
She will step out for the cameras to zoom in on her blue eyes, blonde hair and toothy smile. Royal-watchers say those may be just the charms the Spanish royal family needs to save its image.
"Until now, her parents have deliberately protected her so that she is not in the papers all the time. Those days are over," said the prince's biographer, Jose Apezarena.
"They will still try to minimise the impact on her personal life, but soon she is going to be the heir to the throne. It will change her life," he added.
"I feel a bit sorry for her because the change is going to take away some of her freedom."
- 'Normal' childhood -
Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia were already darlings of the celebrity press when Leonor was born on October 31, 2005. Letizia, an ex-newsreader, has made countless front pages.
The births of Leonor and her sister Sofia, who is now seven, turned them into possibly the cutest royal family in the world: a tall prince, glamorous mother and two little girls with long blonde hair.
The couple have kept their daughters largely out of view so their childhoods can be as normal as possible.
The few glimpses of the girls allowed by the palace have shown them smiling as they hold hands with their mother and father or their grandmother, Queen Sofia.
"Leonor is a very intelligent child, very active but calm. She faces the cameras with great serenity," said Apezarena.
"She is very caring towards her sister. She makes sure to give her advice and help," he said.
"She does the same things as her classmates, eats in school, goes to ballet class, and studies English."
She is said to speak good English, learned from her grandmother and a British nanny as well as at Holy Mary of the Rose Bushes, her expensive private school in western Madrid.
- Learning who you are -
History is changing the childhood routines of Leonor de Borbon y Ortiz, however.
Just weeks before the king announced his abdication, Leonor made her first official royal outing.
In a white cardigan and green shorts, she stood beside her father in his blue air force uniform to watch a ceremonial fly-past on May 2.
Royal-watchers say the timing was not random. Juan Carlos, 76, had already decided to step aside and the outing was the start of Leonor's new higher-profile role as future heir to the throne.
When Felipe is crowned, Letizia will become queen and Leonor will take the title Princess of Asturias.
She is expected to follow the same preparation for the crown as her father did, with military training when she is older. At 18, she must swear loyalty to the king and the constitution.
"They have been explaining to her for some time who she is, who her parents and grandparents are, and what their role is in the country," said Apezarena, who has written several books about the prince's family.
"She has been listening to that, but she is still very young."
- Pretty face, saving face -
Behind the walls of the royal Zarzuela Palace and Holy Mary of the Rose Bushes, Leonor may hear little of the noisy street protests by those who want Spain to be a republic.
Spain's main political forces, the ruling Popular Party and opposition Socialists, back Felipe's succession however and are expected to speed it through parliament, with the new king likely to be sworn in on June 19.
Felipe will then have to win over Spaniards fed up at corruption scandals and two recessions.
For that, the new heiress could be one of his biggest assets.
"Whenever the infantas Leonor and Sofia appear in public, they win the affection of the people. They are very pretty girls and seem very well brought up," Apezarena said.
"We are going to be seeing a lot more of those images from now on, and they are going to help the new king to win over the people."
Anna Politkovskaya killers sentenced to life in prison
Chechens Rustam Makhmudov and Lom-Ali Gaitukayev jailed for 2006 murder of prominent liberal journalist
Agence France-Presse in Moscow
theguardian.com, Monday 9 June 2014 10.42 BST
A Russian court has sentenced two men found guilty of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya to life imprisonment, and handed lengthy prison terms to three others involved in the killing.
Rustam Makhmudov, a Chechen convicted of firing the fatal shots at Politkovskaya, and his uncle Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, accused of organising the hit, were jailed for life at Moscow city court.
Makhmudov's two brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim, were sentenced to 14 and 12 years respectively in a penal colony, while former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was handed a 20-year term.
The shooting of Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter at liberal newspaper Novaya Gazetaand a fierce critic of the Kremlin's tactics in Chechnya, on 7 October 2006, shocked the world, but this was the first time that those directly involved in the killing have been brought to justice.
Almost eight years after the crime, investigators have yet to identify the person who ordered the apparent contract killing. Politkovskaya's family have said they were disappointed that the trial had not come any closer to tracking down the mastermind behind the murder.
A spokesman for Russia's investigative committee, which conducted the investigation, pledged that it would continue its attempts to bring those guilty of the killing to justice.
"At the current time comprehensive measures are being taken to identify the person who ordered the murder," spokesman Vladimir Markin told the Interfax news agency.
Rights activists also insisted the case would not be closed until those behind the killing had been held accountable.
"There is one fundamental question: who ordered it? Until that is resolved the case has to remain open," Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki group told Interfax.
Stalingrad name may return to city in wave of second world war patriotism
Pig Putin has promised to help the city's residents vote on a name change after being asked by second world war veteran
theguardian.com, Sunday 8 June 2014 18.43 BST
For more than 300 years, the Russian city of Volgograd was known as Tsaritsyn. It was dubbed Stalingrad in honour of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for a mere 26 years, but then his successor Nikita Khrushchev dropped that name as part of his campaign to dismantle the personality cult of the former dictator.
Now the city may become Stalingrad once again after the Pig president squealed about holding a referendum to change the name amid a wave of second world war patriotism over eastern Ukraine. When asked by a Soviet veteran during D-day commemorations in Normandy on Friday, Putin promised to help the city's residents vote on bringing back the Stalingrad name. "It wasn't me who canceled that," Putin told the veterans.
On Sunday, Russian Orthodox church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin also spoke out in favour of a referendum. "The word Stalingrad already has a life of its own, independent of the name Stalin. It's associated with the victory in a famous battle, with a certain part of our history," Chaplin said, news agency Interfax reported.
Several other prominent politicians, including deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin and Communist party leader and MP Gennady Zyuganov, were quick to put their weight behind the possible name change. But the Pig's support is what is likely to move the initiative forward in Volgograd, which is one of Russia's largest cities with more than 1 million people.
Last year, several politicians called for a referendum on the name Stalingrad on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the battle there, which stopped the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union and stands as one of the bloodiest battles of all time, with an estimated 2 million total casualties. The Russian Citizens' Union turned in more than 50,000 signatures in favour of renaming the city, but local politicians and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov both turned down the idea.
However, the Volgograd city council voted to use the name Stalingrad on nine annual holidays connected with the second world war.
But outside veterans and pensioners, few seem to support bringing back the war-era name. A poll by the independent Levada Centre in 2012 found that 18% of respondents were for renaming the city Stalingrad, but 60% were against the switch. Volgograd city council deputy Alexei Volotskov said three out of four residents asked in a local poll were against returning the name.
Over 20 million Soviet citizens are said to have died in the second world war, and the conflict has played a huge role in the national consciousness. But patriotism and reverence for the great victory has risen to new heights in recent years with the support of the Pig and other politicians. Earlier this year, the liberal television station Dozhd was dropped by most major carriers under political pressure after it conducted a controversial on-air poll asking if the Soviets should have surrendered the besieged city of Leningrad to save lives.
Russian state television coverage of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have been fighting for control with Kiev's forces, has portrayed the conflict as a struggle against fascism, dubiously comparing the new government in Kiev and Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazi invasion. Several rebel leaders have also portrayed their campaign as a continuation of the second world war.
Belarus: 20 years under dictatorship and a revolution behind the rest of Europe
The crisis in neighbouring Ukraine has rattled Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime. But with the opposition in retreat and the media silenced, can Belarus escape his grip?
Mark Rice-Oxley in Minsk
Monday 9 June 2014 05.00 BST
Tucked away behind the vast, charmless apartment blocks and broad thoroughfares so beloved of Soviet town planners, the Minsk History Museum boasts Belarus’s best exhibition of the summer. Back in the BSSR (the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was then known) is a showcase of Soviet memorabilia and propaganda that takes visitors back a generation to a time when this was one of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics.
“Of course, it was my time, so I remember it fondly,” says Maya Borisovna, a septuagenarian guide, as she explains the artefacts on display. “But now we live better. There are things in the shops. It’s completely different,” she says.
Or is it? Some would argue you don’t have to enter the exhibition to be Back in the BSSR. Streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels. A statue of Lenin dominates a city centre square. There’s even a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original Soviet secret policeman and the first statue toppled in Moscow when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991. A metro ride costs 20p. People smoke indoors. Almost no one has tattoos. This feels like a place that is at least one revolution behind the rest of us, maybe more.
And then there is the leader. This summer, Europe’s longest-serving ruler - the only post-Soviet president that Belarus has known - marks 20 years in office. Since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, parliament has been emasculated, political opponents driven into exile or disappeared, and the media have been silenced. This is a country where the KGB is still called the KGB. It is the last European country to use the death penalty – a bullet to the back of the prisoner’s head. Last month, Lukashenko announced he intended to bring back “serfdom” to “teach the peasants to work more efficiently”.
In the pantheon of great dictators, Lukashenko is a curiosity. The man known as 'Batka' (father of the nation) leads the country’s absurd TV news night after night, whether he is inspecting a tractor, ticking off the cabinet, arriving in Kazakhstan, or all three.
Before last month’s world championships of his beloved ice hockey – the biggest sporting event Belarus has ever held – the president was taking no chances. Concerned about possible shows of dissent, dozens of activists were rounded up and sent to jail.
Natallia Pinchuk fears for what lies in store for them. In a cafe a stone’s throw from the mighty Lenin statue, she describes how justice works in Lukashenko’s Belarus.
“It’s really hard to say everything I want to because in this country you pay for what you say,” says Pinchuk. Her husband, the internationally renowned human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, did just that, jailed in August 2011 for four-and-half years on tax avoidance charges that he, and human rights organisations, call spurious. Pinchuk was allowed just one brief visit to him last year.
“It’s like a conveyor belt,” she says. “People are put in jail, then freed, they criticise the authorities and they are put back in jail again.”
Pinchuk says her husband has been ostracised by fellow prisoners out of fear of political contamination. She says he “doesn’t complain”, but she is concerned about his psychological and physical health in the labour camp at Babruysk penal colony. “People come out of Babruysk with no teeth,” she says. “It’s the lack of vitamins. The food is a joke.”
“I have no one,” says Pinchuk, whose 25-year-old son fled abroad, and whose parents and sister are dead. She says she is pinning everything on February 2016, the month when Bialiatski should be released: “But nothing’s certain in this country.”
One thing that has been certain since Lukashenko came to power is the result of elections. Lukashenko likes to win, and his favourite figure is 80% – not quite Soviet or central Asian levels of approval but enough to draw condemnation from observers inside and outside the country.
“There hasn’t been a fair election since the first one [Lukashenko] won in 1994,” says Andrei Sannikov, the opposition leader who competed for the presidency at the 2010 election, only to find himself imprisoned shortly afterwards.
Lukashenko’s fourth presidential election should, in theory, have been as straightforward as the others. He is not unpopular – some estimates suggest as many as 50% of Belarusians broadly approve of him. That figure would have been enough to win, but not enough for Lukashenko. Belarus’s election commission declared him the 2010 winner before the polls had even closed.
Sannikov joined tens of thousands of demonstrators who filed up Independence street in Minsk for an unprecedented show of outrage against what international monitors deemed to be another deeply flawed vote. For a few moments, Sannikov recalls, there was a euphoria, and a sense that something might be about to change. Then the KGB stepped in.
“I don’t remember how I was first kicked, but I was on the ground and then I lost consciousness,” he says. On the way to hospital, he says, KGB officers pulled him and his wife from a car and beat him again before taking him to a detention centre. “They separated me and Iryna [Khalip, his journalist wife] and said they would take me to hospital – and they took me to KGB prison instead.”
Sannikov got five years for “organising mass disorder”. With Khalip in detention too, the authorities tried to take the couple’s only child from kindergarten and put him in an orphanage. Sannikov was eventually freed, soon after new EU sanctions were announced against Belarusian officials in March 2012. “When I was released we organised a press conference and immediately after it, Lukashenko said that if there was another word we would be in jail again in two hours,” Sannikov recalls. He now lives in exile in Warsaw.
Impact of Ukraine and Crimea
Lukashenko argues that under his leadership his people have education, healthcare and security. He claims that after centuries of subjugation, annihilation and reconstitution, the country has, on his watch, avoided the evils of terrorism, separatism, and that all-encompassing Russian word “banditism”.
“Do you think I stay in power just because I revel in it?” he said in a recent interview. “Permit me to be immodest, but I did something for this country … I don’t want all of it to come crashing down in an hour.”
The crisis in Ukraine hasn’t quite threatened that, but it has rattled the Lukashenko administration. Many have asked: if Russia could take Crimea, then why not Belarus? Of Belarus’s 10-million strong population, 15% are ethnically Russian. Belarus is far more Russian than Ukraine: the language ubiquitous, the culture almost indistinguishable. Lukashenko said recently that he saw his country as “the most pro-Russian province” – an admission akin to the Austrian chancellor declaring his country to be a loyal subject of Germany – and agreed that Crimea was part of Russia.
Yet he has also come to Kiev’s defence. In the face of prolonged, pro-Russian separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, he has been vocal in saying the country must not be split apart, and pledged his support for the newly elected western-backed Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko.
Lukashenko maintains Russians are Belarusians’ best friends, but warned: “No matter who comes to Belarusian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin.”
Belarus is bordered by Russia to the north and Ukraine to the south
Taking sides is problematic: too pro-Kiev and he looks like another thorn in the Russian side. Too pro-Russian and he looks like a man happy for Moscow to start taking over its former Soviet frontier lands.
Roman Yakovlevsky, a Belarusian political analyst with opposition sympathies, says Lukashenko’s administration has been scared by recent events in Ukraine. “The entire country is divided over Ukraine,” says Yakovlevsky. “The authorities were scared, but the people are also scared when they see blood spilled and civil war.”
Belarus has a long history of invasion, war and destitution. During the second world war, a third of the population died. The overriding feeling is: never again.
“Ukraine frightened people here,” says one diplomatic source in Minsk. “They see that Russia can just come and take what they want if they don’t like what’s happened. They realise that changing things through demonstrations is not an option.”
That realisation is a crushing blow to an opposition already in retreat.
Meanwhile, the statistics detailing life for the average Belarusian speak for themselves. “Belarus is in second-last position in Europe on life-expectancy,” says Stanislaw Shushkevich, a Soviet-era leader who ran against Lukashenko during that first, heady 1994 election. “GDP per capita is two to three times lower than in Poland. We are the world’s highest per capita consumers of alcohol. The Belarusian rouble is now worth 2,900 times less than it was in 1993 against the Russian rouble. If you take these objective indicators Belarus is on the level of an African country.”
European and American administrations have imposed sanctions on Belarusian companies and individuals, though critics say they have had little impact. Belarus is dependent on Russian bailouts (Lukashenko came back from Moscow last month with another $2bn credit) and energy subsidies for survival. In some senses it operates as a giant Russian export racket. Eighty per cent of the economy is in state hands. Lukashenko targeted growth in 2013 of nearly 9%. It came in at 0.9%.
Young people in Belarus have dim prospects. Thousands leave to study abroad every year. More Belarusians apply for Schengen visas (allowing free movement between most EU countries) than any other country per capita. Poland has become an almost mythical land of hope and opportunity for the post-Soviet generation.
According to Yauheni Preiherman, eager to make his future as an independent thinktank analyst in Belarus, surveys show as many as two-thirds of young Belarusians would leave tomorrow if they could. “I guess I am among the minority of young Belarusians who do not wish to emigrate,” he says.
Who will decide Lukashenko’s fate?
How much longer will “Europe’s last dictator” last? Lukashenko says he will only step down if he loses an election or his faculties. Neither seem an imminent prospect.
“Resignation is impossible, because he knows he can’t just leave quietly,” he says, pointing to possible legal action that could be taken against the president by whatever administration followed him. “There are still questions about the people who disappeared under his rule,” he says, a reference to several political rivals who vanished without trace in the 1990s.
Elections are due in 2015, but no one expects anything other than the same old ruses from Lukashenko. At best, Sannikov hopes they may provide a focus for renewed discontent. “We had our Maidans in 1996, in 2001, 2006 and 2010,” he says, referring to the square that served as a focal point for the popular uprising in Kiev. “Despite the harassment, people still protest. Since there are no other channels [Lukashenko] leaves for the opposition, there will be mass protests and demonstrations again before and after next year’s election.”
“People are not idiots,” he adds. “They want to live in freedom. For some time they can find some kind of niche for themselves within a dictatorship, but not forever.” The proof, he says, is the number of prison cells containing not activists, protesters or opposition figures, but government bureaucrats who have fallen foul of the regime.
In truth, though, it is more likely that Lukashenko’s fate will be decided by the two big external heavyweights he constantly dances between: Moscow and the west. If the west can help Ukraine back to its feet, it may show Belarusians that there can be life after Lukashenko, a different life in a different orbit. If Moscow tires of the pantomime villain on its borders biting the hand that feeds, it could quickly make life untenable for its client.
In the meantime, Belarus prepares to roll out the bunting to celebrate another year under “Batka”.
Pakistani Taliban claims Karachi attack and leave peace talks in crisis
Airport battle lasted six hours and left 28 dead as any deal with militant group left in balance, after Islamabad vows retaliation
Jon Boone in Islamabad
theguardian.com, Monday 9 June 2014 10.43 BST
The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for a brazen attack on the country's busiest civilian airport by a squad of 10 heavily armed gunmen, which is likely to dash hopes of a peace deal with the militant group.
On Sunday night, Jinnah international airport in Karachi reverberated with the sound of gunfire and explosions as television pictures showed a fire blazing not far from where aircraft were parked on the ground.
The operation to clear the airport raged for six hours until dawn, with 28 people reported killed, including all of the attackers who had entered the airport wearing uniforms of the Airports security force (ASF) apparently preparing for a long siege.
An army spokesman declared the armed response a success, saying the militants "were confined to two areas and eliminated". The attack leaves the government's year-long effort to use the prospect of peace talks to avoid a military confrontation with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in tatters.
The TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said the talks had been a sham and that the attack was revenge for the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in November. The former TTP chief was the last militant to be killed by the CIA's drone campaign, which has been virtually suspended since.
"Pakistan used peace talks as a tool of war, it killed hundreds of innocent tribal women and children. This is our first attack to avenge the death of Hakimullah Mehsud," he told Agence-France Presse.
"We have yet to take revenge for the deaths of hundreds of innocent tribal women and children in Pakistani air strikes. It's just the beginning, we have taken revenge for one, we have to take revenge for hundreds."
In recent weeks the army has launched what it described as retaliatory air strikes and limited ground operations in north Waziristan, a tribal "agency" bordering Afghanistan that serves as important sanctuary for the TTP.
The government had doggedly pressed on with peace talks efforts despite earlier attacks continuing, even as government and TTP intermediaries began holding discussions earlier in the year. But the six-hour assault on the airport of Pakistan's economic hub is one of the most serious attacks the country has suffered for years.
It could provide the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the political space he needs to back army demands for military operations in north Waziristan, a policy bitterly opposed by rightwing opposition parties, particularly Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
karachi Smoke rises above Karachi terminal on Monday after an attack by gunmen dressed as airport security. Photograph: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images
"This act of terror is unforgivable," Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan's defence minister, said. "The state will give a befitting response to such cowardly acts of terror. Those who plan and those who execute the terrorist attacks will be defeated."
The attack began shortly before midnight – a busy time for both domestic and international flights – when 10 men armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades fought their way through two entrances to the airport. One team stormed a small terminal used for VIPs, including the prime minister and foreign dignitaries, while the other appeared to enter through a gate used for accessing a maintenance area. Security officials speculated the group, which reportedly included suicide bombers, had hoped to hijack a plane but became pinned down before they were able to reach any airliners.
The dead included eight ASF members, two officials from the paramilitary Rangers, one police officer and three staff members from state carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Although the army announced the successful conclusion of the operation about five hours after the attack, firing and explosions could still be heard for some time afterwards.
Broken glass and spent gun magazines littered the engineering section where the first exchange of gunfire took place as smoke from grenade attacks began to die down. "I heard fierce firing and then saw the terrorists firing at security force … Thank God I am alive, this is very scary," said witness Sarmad Hussain, a PIA employee.
Syed Saim Rizvi, who was on board a plane on the runway, tweeted: "Huge blast!!!! I do not know whats going on outside – heavy firing started again – full panic on board!" Soon after the attack began the airport was closed to flights, sending inbound planes to other cities and creating panic inside fully fuelled aircraft stuck on the ground.
One of the country's best-known politicians, a senior leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was on one of the planes that was taxiing in preparation for takeoff for London when the attack began. He said he frantically called senior contacts in government urging for the passengers to be allowed to disembark back into the airport. "It was a very close call because we would have passed right past terminal one [where the fighting was taking place]," he said.
The attack is an embarrassing blow to the government on several levels. It will once again highlight concerns the country is unable to protect extremely sensitive targets from militant groups fighting against the Pakistani state.
The attack comes just three years after the Mehran naval airbase, just three miles from the airport, suffered a similar attack when a team of militants killed 10 military personnel and destroyed two aircraft. The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan's military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.
Security measures at the airport have been criticised in the past. The road passing through the outer perimeter of the main terminal is guarded by security forces armed with dowsing rods, similar to the fake bomb detectors sold around the world by British conman Jim McCormick, jailed for fraud last year.
The attack could also deal a huge blow to business confidence, which had begun to perk up following the election of industrialist Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League are anxious to attract foreign investors back to Pakistan, many of whom were scared away from the country by a sharp deterioration in internal security.
Karachi, the home of key industries including finance, is particularly important for the economic growth he vowed to deliver. Sharif has long wanted to attract foreign airlines back to Pakistan, including British Airways, which cut its services following terrorist attacks.
Iran, U.S. Hold Direct Talks in Geneva for Nuclear Deal
by Naharnet Newsdesk
09 June 2014, 13:26
Senior Iranian and U.S. officials were poised to hold direct talks in Geneva Monday aimed at bridging gaps on Tehran's disputed nuclear program ahead of a July deadline for a deal.
For the Islamic republic, the goal is to make a leap towards ending the international sanctions that have battered its economy.
For Washington and its allies, the aim is to make certain that what Iran says is a peaceful atomic power program is not a covert attempt to build a nuclear bomb.
The talks were expected to last two days and begin at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) in the Intercontinental, an upscale Geneva hotel.
It is a traditional venue for closed-door diplomatic negotiations, most recently hosting sessions on Syria and Ukraine.
Abbas Araqchi, Iran's vice foreign minister and nuclear point-man, said Sunday that the tete-a-tete with U.S. officials was essential as the negotiations are delicately poised.
The Geneva meeting marks the first time since the 1980s that Tehran and Washington have held official, direct talks on the nuclear issue outside the wider P5+1 process.
The P5+1 group of permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany have long sought to reach a settlement over Iran's nuclear program.
But with the last round of talks in Vienna in May yielding little, there has been concern that the process is stalling.
The announcement on Saturday of the Geneva meeting came as a surprise, but appeared to confirm the need for secondary steps to close big gaps between Tehran and Washington.
"We have always had bilateral discussions with the United States in the margin of the P5+1 group, but since the talks have entered a serious phase, we want to have separate consultations," Araqchi said, quoted by official IRNA news agency.
"Most of the sanctions were imposed by the US, and other countries from the P5+1 group were not involved," he added.
The U.S. team in Geneva was to be led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a top White House adviser.
They were part of a small team who through months of secret talks in Oman managed to bring Iran back to the P5+1 negotiating table last year.
Araqchi welcomed Burns's presence, saying he hoped it would be "as positive during these negotiations" as previously.
In addition to Burns and Sullivan, Washington has also sent its main nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.
The overall P5+1 talks are chaired by the European Union, and Brussels' foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said the US-Iran bilateral meeting was part of an "intensified negotiating process".
The EU's political director, Helga Schmid, was set to join the meeting.
A senior U.S. administration official said Saturday that the Geneva talks would "give us a timely opportunity to exchange views in the context of the next P5+1 round in Vienna," between June 16-20.
After decades of hostility, Iran and the U.S. made the first tentative steps towards rapprochement after the election of self-declared moderate Hassan Rouhani as president last June.
Rouhani called his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama shortly after he took office, a move followed by a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
An interim deal struck last November led the U.S. and its partners to release $7 billion from frozen funds in return for a slowdown in Iran's controversial uranium enrichment.
But a long-term accord, ahead of a July 20 deadline, remains a long way off, experts say.
Cyrus Nasseri, a member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team when it was led by Rouhani between 2003 and 2005, told AFP the U.S. role as "the main interlocutor" explained the need for direct talks, and said Washington had to drop its "stubbornly recalcitrant" outlook.
"It's all a matter of whether the U.S. will be prepared to take the next step to accept a reasonable solution which will be win-win for both," with Iran allowed to maintain a uranium enrichment program, he said.
"The U.S. has to bite the bullet after 10 years of wrongful accusations. It has to accept Iran will at the end of day, no matter how the settlement is made, have peaceful nuclear fuel production."
Modi Government: 'Zero Tolerance' for Attacks on Women
by Naharnet Newsdesk
09 June 2014, 13:31
India's new government pledged Monday to curb violence against women and strengthen the criminal justice system, amid public outrage over the gang-rape and lynching of two girls.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government also promised to provide toilets and electricity in every home in a country where almost half of the population defecates in the open.
India's President Pranab Mukherjee made the pledges in a speech to parliament that laid out the right-wing government's agenda following Modi's landslide election victory last month.
"The government will have a policy of zero tolerance for violence against women, and will strengthen the criminal justice system for its effective implementation," Mukherjee told a joint sitting of parliament.
Mukherjee said India "must not tolerate the indignity of homes without toilets" as the government promised family residences would be connected to power and water by 2022.
The pledges come after the attacks last month on the two low-caste girls, aged 12 and 14, in a village in northern Uttar Pradesh state, which reignited anger over violence against women.
The cousins had gone into the fields in the evening to relieve themselves when they were attacked because their homes, like most in the district, do not have toilets.
India brought in tougher laws last year after the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi, but they have failed to stem the tide of sex attacks across the country, and implementation is patchy, according to experts.
The Modi government would ensure strict implementation of those laws, Mukherjee said.
A rape occurs every 22 minutes, according to Indian government figures.
On women's empowerment, the government was committed to reserving 33 percent of seats in parliament and state assemblies for women, the president said, a pledge of previous national governments.
The government will also seek to improve education for girls in patriarchal India and end female foeticide, which though outlawed is still practiced in a country that favors boys over girls.
Myanmar Military 'Tortures Civilians': Human Rights Group
JUNE 9, 2014, 7:13 A.M. E.D.T.
YANGON — Myanmar security forces "systematically" torture civilians in conflict-racked Kachin state, a rights group said on Monday, the third anniversary of renewed fighting between government forces ethnic minority insurgents in the northern state.
The Bangkok-based Fortify Rights group said it interviewed 78 survivors and witnesses of torture perpetrated by Myanmar's army, police and military intelligence agency.
Victims reported abuses that included stabbings, beatings and having wire tied around their necks.
"The torture and the abuses taking place right now in Kachin state constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity and very little is being done to stop it," Matthew Smith, the group's executive director, said in an interview.
Myanmar's government has been battling autonomy-seeking ethnic-minority guerrillas since shortly after the country, also known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948.
For decades under military rule, the rebels and civilians in ethnic minority areas accused the army of carrying out abuses, often as part of a strategy to deprive the guerrillas of civilian support.
The government and the army dismissed such accusations. Government spokesman Ye Htut could not be reached for comment On the latest report.
Such charges since Myanmar embarked on sweeping reforms in 2011 have raised fears that the army is less committed to change than the semi-civilian government that took power that year after five decades of military rule.
Fortify Rights said in its report torture was most often carried out by government soldiers attempting to extract information from Kachin civilians about the strength and movement of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighters.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been displaced since fighting between the KIA and the government erupted on June 8, 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire.
One of those displaced was Jay Ya, a 32 year-old teacher.
Speaking at a Baptist church in the main city of Yangon, Jay Ya said she had lost her youngest child while fleeing from her home when her village was attacked at that time.
Jay Ya, who was pregnant at the time, said she had fled with her two children but her young boy drowned as they were crossing a fast-flowing river.
"I couldn't hold onto my child and he was washed away," she said. Many Kachin people are Christian. Most of Myanmar's 60 million people are Buddhist.
The accusations of torture come as the government attempts to forge a national ceasefire with 16 ethnic-minority guerrilla forces. Only the KIA and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army have not signed separate pacts.
Successful negotiations would bolster the reformist credentials of the semi-civilian government.
The negotiations have shown little progress, partly due to mistrust of the government, according to Khon Ja, a coordinator with the Kachin Peace Network civil society group. She said the military ignored a Dec. 10, 2011, order by President Thein Sein to cease its offensive against the KIA.
"The president takes no action if his commands are not implemented," she said. "That's why we cannot trust Thein Sein."
Khon Ja pointed to another major sticking point: the ethnic minority groups want a federal system with autonomy for the ethnic-based states.
At the latest round of talks in Yangon in May, military representatives agreed to put to the government a proposal from the minority groups for the term "federal system" to be included in the national ceasefire pact.
But one analyst said he doubted it would mean much in practice.
"It's better than nothing, but in order to introduce a federal system they would have to write an entirely new constitution and that's not likely to happen," Bertil Lintner, an author of several books on Myanmar, told Reuters at the time.
Smith of Fortify Rights said the abuses documented in the 71-page report were undermining the peace effort. He said his researchers had found no evidence of torture by the KIA, although there are allegations the group recruits child soldiers.
Border Makes China and India Bristle, Even as They Seek Closer Ties in Trade
By ELLEN BARRY
JUNE 8, 2014
NEW DELHI — China’s state news media has welcomed India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, as a pragmatic new partner on economic matters, noting that as a regional leader, he made four visits to Beijing seeking investment and even went to the trouble of printing his business cards in Chinese characters, in the auspicious color of red.
But as the two giant neighbors attempt to reinvigorate their relationship with the first in a series of top-level meetings this week, one image may interfere: that of a Tibetan man who was led to a seat near the front at Mr. Modi’s swearing-in last month.
He is Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet’s India-based exile government, and a man who is rarely invited to official ceremonies for fear of provoking the wrath of China.
China has denounced the exiles and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as separatists, sometimes curtailing diplomatic relations with foreign governments that receive them. On the day of the ceremony, Mr. Sangay was still smarting from a recent snub from Norway’s prime minister, who refused to meet the Dalai Lama, and he was initially unsure what to make of the invitation in New Delhi.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I will get to sit at the back end, as long as I can sit in the shade.’ But then I showed them the ticket, and they told me to go to the front,” said Mr. Sangay, head of the Central Tibetan Administration, which has been arguing for three traditionally Tibetan provinces to be granted “genuine regional autonomy” within China.
Mr. Sangay’s presence at the event — at the request of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the influential Hindu nationalist organization that helped give Mr. Modi’s political career its start decades ago — attracted little notice until last week, when China lodged a formal complaint with India, according to The Times of India.
It points to abiding tensions between the world’s two most populous countries, focusing on their shared 2,521-mile border and dating back more than 50 years, to China’s territorial claim over Tibet.
Even as Mr. Modi pursues closer economic ties with China, there have been reminders of deep suspicion from India’s security establishment.
Mr. Modi’s new junior minister for internal security is from the state of Arunachal Pradesh, parts of which are claimed by China. And on Sunday, the day China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, arrived in New Delhi, an Indian newspaper reported that China had been building up a military presence in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, citing a classified document leaked by India’s Intelligence Bureau.
“The basic outlook is that we want to do more on the business side; that doesn’t mean they are going to be different on security issues,” said C. Raja Mohan, a leading strategic-affairs analyst in New Delhi. He said China, facing turbulent relations with neighbors like Japan and Vietnam, had sent a similar message to India.
“I think they’re signaling that they would like this part of the periphery to be reasonable and tranquil,” he said. “They have not indicated anything on boundary disputes or reducing their relations with Pakistan.”
China’s public statements since Mr. Modi took office have been uniformly positive, and Mr. Wang told The Hindu, a daily newspaper, that President Xi Jinping had “personally instructed him” to visit India soon after Mr. Modi took office. Mr. Wang said he had come bearing the message that “China stands by your side throughout your efforts of reform and development, and your pursuit of dreams.”
China is offering to help India set up special economic zones and promote industrial development clusters, and has already sent a delegation to inspect prospective sites. Mr. Wang said some Chinese business had already begun construction on industrial facilities, and were hoping for preferential policies to speed up the process.
But tension over border issues was not far away. Early Sunday, before Mr. Wang arrived for his first scheduled meetings, security forces in New Delhi took up positions around a Tibetan neighborhood in north Delhi. Several hundred activists from the Tibetan Youth Congress, who had gathered to stage a protest outside the Chinese Embassy, were locked in and unable to leave, said Tenzing Jigme of the Tibetan Youth Congress.
Two years ago, during a visit by President Hu Jintao of China, a 26-year-old Tibetan exile set himself on fire to protest China’s policies in Tibet and later died. Graphic footage of his act was seen around the world, providing the exile community with a rallying point.
Among the strongest advocates for Tibet’s exile movement in New Delhi is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which recommended inviting Mr. Sangay and his predecessor to the swearing-in ceremony on May 26, according to Ram Madhav, an official.
Pemba Tsering, the speaker of Parliament in the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala, said the invitation had sent the message that “we will not see a downgrading in Tibet as an issue for India” with the change of governments.
Mr. Mohan, the analyst, said support for the Tibetan exiles ran deep in Indian society, regardless of party.
“We’re still the only ones who support them,” he said. “The Indians are the only ones who still give them shelter, and we are willing to stand by that commitment.”
He added, though, that Delhi was not likely to ever return to the forceful advocacy of the 1960s, when the Indian Army fought a brief war with China over border incursions.
“There will be more empathy, more affection visibly,” Mr. Mohan said. “How much are they willing to do? That will be interesting.”
06/07/2014 11:14 PM
Interview with UN Peace Envoy Brahimi: 'Syria Will Become Another Somalia'
Interview by Susanne Koelbl
For almost two years, Lakhdar Brahimi sought to bring peace to Syria. But in May, the United Nations special envoy stepped down. He speaks with SPIEGEL about the stubbornness of Syrian President Assad, the mistakes of the West and the dangers presented by Islamic radicals.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Brahimi, in May, you stepped down as the United Nations special envoy to Syria. When you took the position in 2012, many considered the task of achieving peace in Syria to be a mission impossible. What did you hope to achieve?
Brahimi: The idea was, and still is, for Bashar al-Assad to agree to become the kingmaker instead of staying on as president, an orderly transition with his participation to go to the new Syria. This is what I was and still am dreaming of.
SPIEGEL: Can you point to a particular incident that showed you that it was time to give up?
Brahimi: When I ended the second round of discussions at the so-called Geneva II conference at the beginning of this year, I realized that this process was not going to move forward any time soon.
SPIEGEL: What happened?
Brahimi: Neither Russia nor the US could convince their friends to participate in the negotiations with serious intent.
SPIEGEL: To what degree is the dispute about the person of President Bashar al Assad?
Brahimi: The issue of President Assad was a huge hurdle. The Syrian regime only came to Geneva to please the Russians, thinking that they were winning militarily. I told them "I'm sure that your instructions were: 'Go to Geneva. But not only don't make any concessions, don't discuss anything seriously.'"
SPIEGEL: What about on the other side?
Brahimi: The majority among the opposition were against coming to Geneva. They preferred a military solution and they came completely unprepared. But at least they were willing to start talking with President Assad still there as long as it was clear that, somewhere along the line, he would go.
SPIEGEL: So, you didn't have a chance at all?
Brahimi: I told the Americans and the Russians several times while we were preparing for Geneva that they were bringing these two delegations kicking and screaming, against their will.
SPIEGEL: For the sake of his country, why couldn't President Bashar accept a replacement leader that everybody could live with?
Brahimi: It is his regime. He still has an appetite for power. The regime is built around his person and he still has enough authority over people that having him stay in power is a fundamental part of their vision of the future. The way he puts it is, "The people want me there and I cannot say no." He said, "I am a Syrian national. If I have 50 percent plus one vote at the elections, I'll stay. If I have 50 percent less one vote, I will go." Yesterday he was just re-elected for another seven years! You have a situation where one side says there can be no solution unless Assad stays in power. While the other side says there can be no solution unless Assad goes. Do you know how to square a circle?
SPIEGEL: Is Assad aware of the way the war is being conducted by his army?
Brahimi: One-hundred percent.
SPIEGEL: The barrel bombs being thrown from helicopters on civilian populations? The targeted bombing of hospitals? The systematic torture and killing of thousands or tens-of-thousands?
Brahimi: He knows a hell of a lot. Maybe he doesn't know every single detail of what is happening, but I'm sure he is aware that people are being tortured, that people are being killed, that bombs are being thrown, that cities are being destroyed. He cannot ignore the fact that there are 2.5 million refugees. That number is going to be 4 million next year, and there are 6 million people who are internally displaced. He knows that there are 50,000 to 100,000 people in his jails. And that some of them are tortured every day.
SPIEGEL: Did you confront him with those facts?
Brahimi: Sure! I spoke to him of a list of 29,000 people in his prisons and I gave a copy of the list to his office.
SPIEGEL: Is the regime the major culprit or are war crimes also committed by others?
Brahimi: War crimes are being committed every day, by both sides. Starvation is being used as a weapon. When you prevent water and food from reaching 250,000 people, what else can you call that? And at the same time, some of the armed groups are using civilians as human shields. But the regime has a state, has an army with 300,000 men, has airplanes, which the opposition doesn't have.
SPIEGEL: Does anybody track those war crimes and hold people responsible?
Brahimi: There is an investigation commission, working under the umbrella of the High Commission of Human Rights, that has been trying to look at all these human rights abuses and they are systematically collecting facts. People will be held responsible one day.
SPIEGEL: Who is the dominating force in the armed opposition?
Brahimi: The opposition is very fragmented, even the Free Syrian Army. But everybody understands that the jihadi group ISIS (Eds. Note: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is not really interested in Syria. They seek to establish a new order in the region. As long as there are no negotiations, the armed groups as well as the political opposition will continue to be fragmented.
SPIEGEL: Are any of those groups capable of winning the fight against Assad and his regime?
Brahimi: The United Nations secretary general has been saying all along that there is no military solution. Neither the regime, nor the opposition can win a decisive military victory.
SPIEGEL: What is your prediction for the future of Syria and the region?
Brahimi: Unless there is a real, sustained effort to work out a political solution, there is a serious risk that the entire region will blow up. The conflict is not going to stay inside Syria. It will spill over into the region. It's already destabilizing Lebanon, there are 1.5 million refugees in the country; that represents one third of the population. If it were Germany, it would be the equivalent of 20 million. It is destabilizing because ISIS …
SPIEGEL: … the most radical and brutal armed opposition group, which seeks to establish a militant Islamic state …
Brahimi: … is active in both Syria and Iraq already, and Jordan is really struggling to continue resisting. Even Turkey! According to a senior Iraqi official, ISIS has carried out 100 operations in Syria and 1,000 operations in Iraq in just three months.
SPIEGEL: How could these radical forces emerge so quickly? Sources say that the Syrian regime itself helped unleash this phenomenon deliberately -- that they have released hundreds of extremists from their prisons, even encouraging them to create an enemy that they can legitimately fight against. Is this correct?
Brahimi: I have heard this several times. People will tell you that ISIS controls one province and the government never attacks them. It is probably the government's way of saying: "This is the future you will have if we are not there anymore."
SPIEGEL: Will the states of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria be able to survive?
Brahimi: They will not completely disappear as states, but it reminds me a lot of 1999. Then, I resigned from my first assignment as UN special envoy to Afghanistan because the UN Security Council had no interest in Afghanistan, a small country, poor, far away. I said one day it's going to blow up in your faces. It did.
SPIEGEL: What is the link to Syria?
Brahimi: Syria is so much worse! This ISIS, they don't believe in just staying there. And they are training people. Your countries are terribly scared that the few Europeans that are there may come back and create all sorts of problems. So just imagine what the feelings are next door!
SPIEGEL: Did the West make significant mistakes when the conflict broke out?
Brahimi: Most people did, the product of a wrong reading of the situation inside Syria -- just as events in Tunisia and even in Libya were misread by most people. People have got it wrong every time. Which is understandable. It is complicated and these events erupted on us when we weren't looking. What is difficult to understand is that the early, mistaken assumptions have not been revised. On all sides, people still help the war effort instead of the peace effort, and it is making things worse.
SPIEGEL: If the international community had only supported the Free Syrian Army with the right weaponry in the early stages, Assad could have been ousted and a peaceful transition could have prevailed. Do you share this assessment?
Brahimi: No, because I think they did help the Free Syria Army. But the thing is they thought that the regime was going to fall easily -- complete misconception. Syria has a state, it has an army, and it was assumed that it was going to fall just like Libya did.
SPIEGEL: Might the Assad regime fall at some point?
Brahimi: So far he is still President and Russia and Iran still support him.
SPIEGEL: Is there any plan you can think of that might put an end to this conflict?
Brahimi: Iraq tells us that military intervention is a very, very dangerous way of solving problems. UN intervention is something else. If you have a peace-keeping mission that comes as part of an agreed solution, that would be different.
SPIEGEL: What should such a mission look like?
Brahimi: The UN has, I think, 20,000 or 30,000 soldiers that would be there to help the Syrians implement something they have agreed upon. And then you would need to face the ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and (other radical groups). But first, the Syrians would have to agree for the UN to come in. It doesn't look likely today or tomorrow, but this conflict has got to be resolved. And it will be at some point. The question is: How much killing and destruction are we going to have before that happens? People are telling me that Homs looks like Berlin in 1945.
SPIEGEL: Could the recent ceasefire in Homs be a model for other places like Aleppo?
Brahimi: The government starved the people there into surrender. The negotiation in Homs took place within the war project of the government, and it led to a victory by the government. But a lot of the things that have taken place during the last phase of negotiations over Homs could be part of a peace process. On previous occasions, many among the people who surrendered were arrested. It is alleged that some have been tortured or even killed.
SPIEGEL: What role do the countries backing each party play?
Brahimi: The Russians have consistently said it was not up to them to ask President Assad to leave office: "We do not have that much influence over him, even if we wanted," they said. The Iranians said they accept that the crisis needs to be solved through negotiations, that at the end there must be free and fair elections and that this could be organized and observed by the United Nations. But then they said that, of course Assad would be allowed to stand if he wants. All three -- Russia, Iran and Iraq -- are supporting Damascus and delivering a lot of aid to them; probably money and definitely weapons.
SPIEGEL: How about the support for the armed opposition?
Brahimi: The Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks are supporting all kinds of political groups and armed groups. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia said several times that the Syrian people are defending themselves against a brutal regime and it is legitimate to help them protect themselves.
SPIEGEL: We have been told that the Saudis even refused to meet with you.
Brahimi: That's a fact. I think they didn't like what I was saying about a peaceful and negotiated settlement with concessions from both sides. I am only guessing because I did not hear that from them. The irony is that hired pens for the regime are saying that I am Saudi Arabia's man!
SPIEGEL: Could the Saudis and the Iranians come up with a solution if they were just to sit down together instead of letting their proxies fight about who will dominate the region?
Brahimi: Saudi Arabia is a very important country. King Abdullah is a very wise man and the Iranians, I think, with the new government that they have, also want to be constructive and responsible. Both countries have a responsibility. The region has to start discussing not how to help warring parties, but how to help the Syrian people, their neighbors. The other country that can help is Egypt.
SPIEGEL: To what degree does this conflict pose a threat to Israel?
Brahimi: Israel is very happy. Things are going very, very well for them. If Bashar goes it's great; if Bashar stays it's great. Syria is being weakened. Syria had some kind of strategic weapon with their chemical weapons and that's gone. So Israel is doing very well, thank you very much. You don't need to worry about them.
SPIEGEL: It sounds like you are saying that the Israelis are leaning back and saying: "Great, our enemies are killing each other." Is the world that cynical?
Brahimi: I'm sure they are saying that. It's a realistic point of view. Ask your Israeli friends; they will tell you it's so.
SPIEGEL: What is the true story about the use of chemical weapons in this war?
Brahimi: They have been used, but there are conflicting views about who the culprits were. The UN was specifically requested by the Security Council to merely establish that chemical weapons were used. Not everyone agrees that it was the Syrian government who used these chemical weapons.
SPIEGEL: The West considers it fact that the Syrian government was responsible.
Brahimi: As I said, the UN investigating mission was strictly ordered NOT to try to determinate who the guilty party was. Now, from the little I know, it does seem that in Khan al-Assal, in the north, the first time chemical weapons were used, there is a likelihood that it was used by the opposition. Regarding the use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus, it is a fact that for the West and perhaps most people in the region, the responsibility lies with the regime. Moscow and Tehran say they are equally certain that the government DID NOT use chemical weapons anywhere. It is a great pity the UN was under strict instructions not to try to point the finger at anyone. More recently, there are again allegations that chemical substances have being used. I hope this time the UN will be asked to do its best to find out who the guilty party is.
SPIEGEL: What was the effect of US President Barack Obama not having done anything after poison gas was deployed in Syria; after the red line had clearly been crossed twice? Is America's unwillingness, or inability, to intervene a dangerous portent?
Brahimi: I think that Obama -- and the Russians -- decided that, rather than take punishing action, they would solve the problem at its roots, and they may have done that. From their point of view, and from Israel's, that is the better solution. But many Syrians on both sides are rather unhappy that the government is giving up the only strategic weapons they have; a weapon that was acquired at enormous cost to the people of Syria.
SPIEGEL: What do you think will ultimately become of Syria?
Brahimi: It will be become another Somalia. It will not be divided, as many have predicted. It's going to be a failed state, with warlords all over the place.
SPIEGEL: What can the international community do, Europe in particular? What should Germany do?
Brahimi: The people in your governments know how dangerous this crisis is and how important it is to support a political solution.
SPIEGEL: Are you referring to the 320 Germans that have thus far joined ISIS?
Brahimi: And to the 500 or 600 French, the 500 or 600 British, and so on and so forth. There are several thousand non-Syrians. My goodness! These are your nationals that are training in Syria and that are part of ISIS, which believes that you have got to build an Islamic state all over the world, starting with Berlin. That's a threat to you, isn't it?