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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1077064 times)
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« Reply #11685 on: Feb 03, 2014, 06:46 AM »

02/03/2014 11:40 AM

Arms Exports: Berlin Backs Large Defense Deal with Saudi Arabia

Berlin has often been criticized in recent years for selling weapons to questionable regimes. Now, the German government is backing a billion-euro deal for 100 patrol boats.

The German government has often drawn serious criticism for supporting defense deals with countries known to have democratic deficiencies. In the latest controversial move, SPIEGEL has learned that the new government in Berlin wants to secure a major defense deal with Saudi Arabia by offering Hermes export credit guarantees.

The information comes from a classified letter from a senior official in the Finance Ministry to the German parliament's budget committee. The letter states that the German government intends to provide guarantees for the planned export of more than 100 patrol and border control boats to the Gulf state with a total value of around €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion). In the letter, official Steffen Kampeter writes of the "high importance in terms of economic and employment" of the deal, which includes contracts for the Bremen-based Lürssen Shipyard. Kampeter, a politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, asked for the "confidential handling of the business data" because negotiations are still in progress and competition is expected from other countries.

The plans are the first by the new government, comprised of Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party, to export weapons to the Gulf region. In 2011, the German government was criticized for plans to sell battle-tanks to Saudi Arabia after it helped rulers in neighboring Bahrain to violently suppress protests there during the Arab Spring. Despite it's often pacifist positions on global security issues, Germany is also in the seemingly contradictory position of being one of the world's largest arms exporters.

SPD on Board?

Germany's Federal Security Council, a nine-member body made up of the chancellor and several ministers whose proceedings are secret, ruled positively on a preliminary inquiry during the last government term, which was headed by Merkel's conservatives and the business-friendly Free Democrats, who have since been voted out of parliament.

But the planned deal has also been the subject of criticism. Thomas Oppermann, who now heads the parliamentary group of the center-left Social Democratic Party, criticized the previous government as news emerged last year of its intentions to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, saying that the conservatives wanted to "totally upgrade" the country's military capabilities. And in a recent interview, SPD party boss and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he planned to deal "restrictively" with weapons exports in the future and that he didn't want to deliver repressive instruments to authoritarian regimes.

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« Reply #11686 on: Feb 03, 2014, 06:47 AM »

02/02/2014 05:31 PM

Opinion: Britain Could Lead on European Defense

By Wolfgang Ischinger

In the wake of the euro crisis and the NSA spying scandal, many have questioned Britain's future role in Europe. But the head of the Munich Security Conference argues in a book excerpt that London has a strong and indispensible role to play in European defense.

The euro zone crisis and the questions it has thrown up about Europe's future integration and institutional shape have understandably come to dominate the debate over Europe over the past few years. But the imperative to save and spend smarter may provide an incentive to reinvigorate the discussions about more cooperation in defense and security matters -- especially when it comes to the pooling and sharing of military assets. Moreover, we should talk about the crisis of confidence over the massive surveillance activities of British intelligence.

While large segments of British society have grown weary of Brussels and everything it is presumed to stand for, with politicians catering to and reinforcing this weariness, many Europeans are starting to wonder aloud whether the UK really is an indispensable part of Europe -- or whether it would not be better to part ways in an amicable fashion.

This is a dangerous dynamic, to say the least. Some of the criticism directed at London from the continent has been understandable. After all, while all hands have been on deck to save the euro, and with it European integration, some opinions voiced from Britain have not been constructive at all. At the same time, however, Europeans on the Continent have to recognize the very particular nature of public opinion in Britain, and they should recognize what Britain can bring to the table.

The biggest countries in the European Union have always had different ideas about the shape and the purpose of the EU. But until the crisis exposed the fundamental flaws in the construction of the EU and the euro zone, it was comparatively easy, albeit sometimes ugly, to bridge these differences. No longer. The debate about how much Europe we need, in terms of institutional cohesion and the transfer of sovereignty, in order to emerge from the crisis and to build a foundation for a functioning Europe of the future is also a debate about whether Britain will continue to be a part of a EU.

Zeroing in on Areas of Mutual Interest

We don't know how this will play out over the coming years. But there is a real risk of a British exit from the EU if no middle ground can be found. Under these circumstances, it is all the more important to zero in on issues where our mutual interest overwhelmingly calls for closer cooperation, not alienation. Foreign and defense policy is one of these areas.

At first, that might seem counterintuitive. After all, foreign and defense policy has been dominated by national policies and concerns, and has been characterized by a lack of joint European progress. Take defense procurement, for instance, where vested interests reign supreme, from the contractors to the armed forces and politicians.

It is true that European states have different strategic cultures and priorities, that they put different emphases on the importance of security policy and that they are reluctant to create dependencies on others in this field. Simply put, it is remarkable how little bang Europe is getting for the buck it pays on defense matters. Thus, common European foreign and defense policy looks to be even messier than European affairs in other policy areas.

And yet, it is not altogether unrealistic to expect much deeper and more meaningful defense cooperation in Europe in the foreseeable future. Those who merely consider concepts like "Smart Defense" and "Pooling and Sharing" -- old ideas somewhat repackaged -- underestimate the pressures bearing down on the European defense establishment.

Tightening the Screws

Three structural changes have given significant impetus for a concentrated shift from the idea of defense cooperation as a political vision to defense cooperation as a pragmatic necessity. First, the defense sector is feeling a tightening of financial screws. Second, at the same time, greater demands are being placed on the armed forces, which will only further increase as the United States continues to "rebalance toward the Pacific, putting even greater pressure on Europe to be able to operate effectively in its own neighborhood should a crisis occur. Finally, the unpredictability of the future security environment will require greater coordination and effectiveness from European forces.

In other words, given the financial constraints in all the European countries, combined with the greater demands on European defense, Europe's ability to act can only be guaranteed if there is a will to achieve much closer European cooperation, as no member state is able to maintain the full spectrum of capabilities on its own any more. The Franco-British defense and security treaties testify to this very basic observation, and are a remarkably positive example of what cooperation can achieve.

In the long run, closer defense cooperation within Europe will not only save money, increase trust and improve capabilities. Closer defense cooperation may well also aid in converging strategic cultures, making more cooperation likely, creating a sort of virtuous circle that will eventually contribute to a more cohesive European foreign policy.

Moreover, importantly, stronger common European efforts including Britain should be much easier today than in past decades, since strengthening European capabilities or NATO are no longer seemingly mutually exclusive courses of action. Nothing about improving EU capabilities means that our alliance with the US will be any less meaningful in the future. Quite the opposite: The US is making it clear how important a functional and united Europe is for them, too. To quote Vice President Joe Biden, from his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2013: "(A) strong and capable Europe is profoundly in America's interest, and I might add, presumptuously, the world's interest."

Incremental Change

That being said, we should not expect any miracles, let alone steps toward a European army. This does remain a worthwhile long-term objective, but on such an exceptionally loaded and complicated issue, incremental change may be the best we can hope for. This change will be based on a pragmatic and project-based approach, consisting of elements of cooperation, prioritization, and specialization. At first, it will focus on the areas of education and training, logistics and maintenance, with more critical areas following. Should Europe ever move ahead decisively on defense matters, the impulse will have to come from the very top, with leaders taking truly game-changing decisions on the scope and depth of cooperation.

It goes almost without saying that any such attempts to pool and share (more) military assets in Europe would be unthinkable without the strong involvement of the United Kingdom. On the contrary, here Britain could be one of the motors, forcing, for instance, Germany to pay more attention to security policy. British-German bilateral defense cooperation, which is remarkably underdeveloped, would get a boost along the way.

If defense cooperation in Europe is hardly conceivable without an important British role, this is even more the case when it comes to foreign policy and a strategic global outlook in a more general sense. We are all aware that the relative importance and clout of European states in the world will continuously diminish over the coming years and decades.

We will either act largely together or be largely irrelevant -- dependent on the United States to safeguard a liberal international order. If Europe is to play the role of a major global player that is able to defend its interests and values in an increasingly complex and complicated multipolar international order, Britain will have to be an essential part of that.

Reigning In the Spooks

Also, Britain ought to be an essential part of the efforts to restore trust in both trans-Atlantic and intra-European affairs with respect to mutual spying. Much of the German outrage may have focused on the United States and the NSA's tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone. However, Germans also took note of the GHCQ's activities. Britain will have to play a convincing and constructive role in the debates about a European no-spy agreement. Clandestine services of EU states should have to respect the privacy of all EU citizens.

In terms of the larger defense policy questions, while there would be some advantages to having a smaller, more cohesive and more integrated Europe, a British exit from Europe would severely hamper the Continent's global outlook. Britain's experience in diplomacy and international affairs, including its seat in the UN Security Council, its able military, its championship of free trade, and its function as a bridge over the Atlantic are critical assets.

Without them, Europe in the future would likely take a more narrow, inward-looking, maybe even protectionist perspective, which would not be advisable. In the words of German journalist Jan Ross, the European Union without the UK would be a "Europe with a shrunk horizon."

However, Britain stands to lose even more than Europe should it opt for a course outside of Europe. Independence from Brussels may feel liberating for some time, but, in the medium and long run, it would severely harm Britain's prosperity. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who was a war and foreign correspondent for various UK media organizations such as the BBC and the Telegraph between 1986 and 1991 and who has developed an intriguing and welcome habit of publicly speaking his mind to some key EU countries, put it this way in a speech at Blenheim Palace in September 2012:

"Your interests are in Europe. It's high time for your sentiments to follow. Your leaders need to make a more vocal case for your European interests. … You could, if only you wished, lead Europe's defense policy."

Indeed, Britain could. And, hopefully, not too far into the future, it will.

This text has been excerpted from the new book "Common Destiny vs. Marriage of Convenience -- What do Britons and Germans want from Europe?" by the British-German KE7 foundation.

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« Reply #11687 on: Feb 03, 2014, 06:59 AM »

Kerry and Iran Minister Confer on Nuclear Issue

FEB. 2, 2014

MUNICH — Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, met for an hour on Sunday with Secretary of State John Kerry, another sign of serious efforts to solve the crisis around Iran’s nuclear program. The two met on the margins of the Munich Security Conference here, and Mr. Zarif later said on a public panel that Iran “will go to those negotiations with the political will and good faith to reach an agreement.”

According to American officials, Mr. Kerry “reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith” when talks aimed at a comprehensive deal begin Feb. 18 in Vienna. Mr. Kerry also urged Iran to keep to “its commitments” under an initial temporary deal agreed upon in November. Mr. Kerry told Mr. Zarif that the United States would continue to enforce existing sanctions, the officials said, but also emphasized that Washington would keep its commitment not to create new sanctions while the temporary, six-month deal was in force.

Mr. Zarif said publicly that Iran wanted to negotiate seriously for as long as necessary, which could take longer than six months, and he offered to begin a dialogue on human rights issues with the European Union. He said Iran and the world were at a crossroads, despite decades of mistrust on both sides. “The opportunity is there, and we need to seize it,” he said.

He said Iran was fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization that monitors compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed. The agency’s director, Yukiya Amano, on the same panel, said that Iran was complying so far but that important questions about its nuclear program, which Iran insists has no military component, remained to be clarified.

Mr. Zarif acknowledged the point, saying, “There are important questions, and we are prepared to address them.”

Under the six-month deal with the members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, Iran agreed to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, close to military grade, and to convert or dilute its current stock of such uranium, while continuing to enrich at lower levels. In return, the European Union and the United States agreed to lift certain sanctions temporarily and return $4.2 billion of Iran’s assets, previously frozen, in eight installments over six months.

A comprehensive deal is expected to be difficult to achieve, but Iran and the United States seem committed to trying — Iran to end its isolation and the sanctions imposed upon it, and Washington to solve at least one big Middle East problem and avoid the possibility of military action to prevent the development of an Iranian bomb. A failure of the talks would bring the military option quickly back to the fore.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who was at the conference, was critical of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East and said Iran had a long history of deception around its nuclear program. He advised a policy of “don’t trust, but verify” with Iran, while Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of Israel, speaking separately, castigated Iran as being dedicated to a nuclear weapon and acting to deceive, and he repeated Israel’s warning that it would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, a commitment also made by President Obama.

Mr. Kerry also spoke to Mr. Zarif about the delay in moving Syrian chemical weapons to port, to be shipped out of Syria, and about the dire situation of refugees and displaced people in besieged areas of Syria. Shiite Iran is a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and has provided crucial military and financial support to him, but Mr. Zarif told Mr. Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria. Iran’s policy on Syria is not controlled by the Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Kerry also raised the cases of three American citizens detained or missing in Iran and urged that they be returned to their homes.

Also on Sunday, Mr. Kerry found himself at the center of a dispute a day after warning that the risk of foreign boycotts of Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians would intensify should his current Middle East peace effort fail.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and some of his senior ministers on Sunday strongly criticized those who are threatening a boycott of Israel. “Attempts to impose a boycott on the state of Israel are immoral and unjust,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting. “Moreover, they will not achieve their goal.”

In a swift response, the State Department said Mr. Kerry had always opposed calls for boycotts and expected “all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.”

Jennifer Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Mr. Kerry “described some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails, including the consequences for the Palestinians.”

“His only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed,” she added.


Hillary Clinton calls on Senate not to impose more sanctions on Iran

Spencer Ackerman in Washington, Sunday 2 February 2014 21.46 GMT      

Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential heir apparent, has urged her former Senate colleagues not to pass new sanctions on Iran, even as she called the Islamic Republic a “threat to global security”.

The intervention from Clinton, who holds a commanding lead in a 2016 Democratic primary contest she has not formally entered, represents both a new opportunity for the Obama administration to rescue its major diplomatic overture from a Congress that largely loathes it and a threat of being undermined by a potent and independent force within the Democratic Party.

Clinton’s involvement in the Iran debate subtly positions the Democratic frontrunner as an Iran hawk who is less hopeful of the diplomatic bargain ending US grievances with Tehran than she is cautious about Washington fracturing a diplomatic coalition needed to enforce punitive measures on Iran.

That coalition, she implied in a letter released on Sunday, by Senator Carl Levin, was an accomplishment of Clinton’s tenure as Obama’s first secretary of state. Her letter subtly points to differences between her foreign policy outlook and that of the administration she served, a discrepancy that both Clinton and Obama will have to navigate delicately as the next presidential contest approaches.

In her letter, dated 26 January, Clinton stressed her early advocacy of “crippling sanctions” on Iran over its nuclear programme, a nod to her bona fides as an Iran hawk, before telling her former Senate colleagues that proposed sanctions legislation would risk making Washington seem at fault if a permanent deal cannot be reached in the agreed-upon six-month timeframe.

“It could rob us of the international high ground we worked so hard to reach, break the united international front we constructed, and in the long run, weaken the pressure on Iran by opening the door for other countries to chart a different course,” Clinton wrote.

Clinton pointedly did not sound hopeful notes about the prospect of decades-old enemies reaching a peaceful resolution of a major grievance. The closest she came was urging that “this is the time to give our diplomacy the space to work”.

That contrasts sharply with John Kerry, her successor as secretary of state and the driver of the Iran overture, who said in Germany this week that the world is “at a crossroads with respect to the relationship with Iran”. Instead, Clinton wrote that she has no “illusions” about Iran.

A nuclear accord, Clinton wrote, “will not suddenly remove every other concern we have with the Iranian government’s behaviour, whether in Syria, in the wider region, or towards its own people. So long as Iran remains a sponsor of terrorism and a threat to global security, we will have to remain vigilant in defence of our allies and partners, including Israel,” whose prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has called the Iran diplomacy a “historic mistake”.

She continued: “Yet I have no doubt that this is the time to give our diplomacy the space to work. If it does not, there will be time to put into place additional sanctions in the future, with greater international support necessary to ensure enforcement, and to explore every other option on the table,” a diplomatic euphemism for war.

Clinton also offered special praise for Congress’s “leadership”, another departure in tone from Obama, whose White House has called sanctions advocates warmongers and who threatened in his State of the Union address on Tuesday to veto new sanctions legislation.

“At this moment it is of particular importance that our government’s efforts work in coordination, not at cross purposes. We should give anyone watching from Tehran no reason to doubt America’s unity and resolve,” Clinton wrote, positioning herself as an outside mediator bringing Congress and the White House in line.

Should negotiations fail, she wrote, “the legislative and executive branches will move with speed and unity, backed by America’s allies, to institute even tougher sanctions”, a suggestion that punitive measures on Iran will remain an option should Clinton be elected president.

Levin, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee who said he solicited Clinton’s views, called her letter “a thoughtful, persuasive argument from an experienced, respected senior official”.

He said: “Her letter is another strong signal to Congress that we should not take any legislative action at this time that would damage international unity or play into the hands of hardliners in Iran who oppose negotiations."

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on 30 January found Clinton with the support of 73% of Democratic primary voters, a six-to-one margin over her closest presumed rival for the nomination, Vice-President Joe Biden. It is one of the most commanding early leads in recent presidential polling memory, and one that speaks to an enormous well of support for Clinton, whom Obama narrowly defeated for the 2008 Democratic nomination.

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« Last Edit: Feb 03, 2014, 07:14 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #11688 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:00 AM »

No more excuses for Taliban violence, Bhutto heir tells Pakistan's leaders

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 25, says prime minister and Imran Khan letting down nation by not backing firm military action

Jon Boone in Mohenjodaro, Sunday 2 February 2014 18.25 GMT   
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the youthful heir apparent to one of south Asia's most famous dynasties, has launched a scathing attack on his political opponents who he said must stop "making excuses" for Taliban violence.

The 25-year-old son of the assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Nawaz Sharif, the country's current leader, and the opposition politician Imran Khan, were "letting down the people" by not backing firm military action against the Taliban.

"Perhaps they are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome," Bhutto Zardari said, referring to cases of hostages who sympathise with or even assist their captors. "There is no reason why the national leaders, the so-called leaders, should not speak out against people who are murdering our citizens, murdering our armed forces and claiming responsibility."

The remarks are likely to further burnish his reputation as both a brash new arrival on Pakistan's political scene but also the most outspoken politician in the country on the issue of militancy and extremism.

He does not sit in parliament, but wields significant influence over the Pakistan People's party (PPP), of which he is "patron in chief". The party has been led in the past by his grandfather, his mother – who was killed while campaigning in 2007 – and his father, Asif Ali Zardari. Khan and other right-wing politicians have been criticised for handling the Pakistani Taliban with kid gloves, in a so-far unsuccessful bid to lure them into peace talks.

On Saturday the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan ( TTP ), as the country's deadly coalition of militants is known, signalled its appreciation of Khan's approach by announcing the movement wanted him to sit on a committee with four extremist clerics known to sympathise with militant aims. The TTP said Khan and the others could represent its interests in peace talks with the government.

Khan brushed off the embarrassing endorsement, saying "the TTP should select their own Taliban representatives for the peace talks".

Even mass-casualty suicide attacks on civilians have at times elicited only meek condemnations. Many politicians are reluctant even to identify the culprits as the TTP.

Bhutto Zardari said the tactic had been disastrous, emboldening extremists to target civilians, including Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl education activist who nearly died in 2012 after being shot in the head by a Taliban assassin. "This is why people like Malala become targets because the politicians, or the so-called leaders of this country, can't find the courage to speak out when a 16-year-old girl could. If we all speak in one voice, they can't kill us all," he said.

The TTP has used a highly effective intimidation campaign against liberal and left-leaning political parties and journalists to silence many of its natural critics. Bhutto Zardari said he could speak out only because of the vast security operation that surrounds him at all times and heavily restricts his travel in Pakistan, where he spends much of his time at his fortress-like family compound in Karachi.

"I have a lot of security – I lost my mother to the Taliban because of a lack of security – and that explains partly why I can be so vocal," he said. "But so does Imran Khan. Nawaz Sharif is the prime minister of Pakistan, Shahbaz Sharif is the chief minister of Punjab. They all have more security than I do. They have no excuse."

In the past Khan has said strident rhetoric might endanger the lives of his supporters and party activists. Bhutto Zardari has shown no such caution, even though he hopes thousands of members of the public will be attracted to numerous cultural events he has organised across Sindh in the coming weeks. They are part of a festival he has promoted as a deliberate challenge to extremists and militants he derisively calls "cavemen".

Bhutto Zardari is firmly against negotiations with the Taliban, saying the time has come for far-reaching military operations against the TTP, particularly in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan, an area bordering Afghanistan that for years has been a sanctuary for al-Qaida allied groups.

But he warned an operation should be in co-operation with Afghanistan, an unlikely proposition given the distrust between Kabul and Islamabad. "With Afghanistan there is no point of us launching an operation over here if they are just going to hop across the border and find sanctuary over there," he said. "The ideal situation would be an operation from both sides at the same time."

In recent weeks it had appeared that Sharif would finally announce the abandonment of a talks policy his close aides said had failed to make any progress. But instead on Wednesday Sharif announced he was giving them one last chance, announcing a hastily assembled commission of intermediaries to try to talk to the TTP.

Bhutto Zardari said he was exasperated by the decision: "It is extremely frustrating, not just for me but for the people who risk their lives on a daily basis, for the people who die on a daily basis," he said.

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« Reply #11689 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:09 AM »

Afghanistan election campaign begins in climate of optimism and fear

Two campaign team members murdered at start of democratic process to find successor to Hamid Karzai

Emma Graham-Harrison   
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 15.15 GMT   
The election campaign for Afghanistan's next president officially kicked off on Sunday, two months before voting opens in a contest already plagued by violence and fraud but still the country's best hope of a somewhat stable future.

If it goes smoothly the April election will produce the first ever peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghanistan. The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is barred from standing again.

The historic nature of the vote underlines both what is at stake, and the size of the challenge in a country crippled by poverty and a raging insurgency even after more than a decade of international intervention.

"Eleven candidates, election campaigning and democracy. Makes me hopeful about Afghanistan. I hardly witnessed these in my lifetime," activist Wazhma Frogh, an outspoken critic of the government, said on Twitter.

Posters started going up around Kabul where campaigners defied a light drizzle, the teams unveiled spokesmen and campaign managers, the first rally dates were set, and social media platforms popular with the country's urban elite were already buzzing with support and criticism.

But the Taliban have vowed to disrupt an election they dismiss as a "waste of time" and violence began before the campaigning, with the assassination on Saturday of two men in Herat city.

Presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, said they were part of his campaign team, and diplomats were quick to condemn the attack.

"The attack came at a critical moment for Afghanistan," said Jan Kubis, the top UN envoy to Kabul said in a statement. "This cowardly action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated."

All 11 candidates have been issued with three armoured cars and more than 36 police officers as a personal guard for the duration of the campaign, and on Saturday they met members of the Independent Election Commission, which is organising the vote, to discuss security.

The other candidates range from a chatshow host and former airline pilot to the hardline Islamist who first invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, and has an insurgency group in the Philippines named after him.

If none of them can get more than 50% of the vote on 5 April, a target that seems unlikely with such a wide field, there will be a second round that could push the final announcement of a new leader into the late summer.

Such an outcome worries foreign powers that support the country's government and military, with hopes that a new leader will sign a long-term security deal to keep American troops in the country.

After negotiating the bilateral security agreement, Karzai surprised Washington but also much of his own cabinet by demanding fresh concessions and refusing to sign.

Without it, promised aid worth billions of dollars is likely to dry up, and even a strong leader would struggle to hold together a country grappling with an insurgency, a feeble economy and massive unemployment, and a flourishing drug trade.

The president in Afghanistan wields huge powers, with little real opposition from a weak, fragmented parliament, and there is currently no frontrunner. With so much at stake, the race is expected to be intense, and most campaigns say they have already organised teams of monitors to look out for fraud by rivals on polling day.

Campaign spending is officially capped at 10m Afghanis (around $200,000), but in a country awash with money from opium and a lengthy military contracting boom, few expect that budget to be observed.

The top candidates beside Abdullah include an urbane mujahideen fighter close to assassinated commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and a technocrat intellectual who controversially bolstered his ticket with a popular mujahideen-era commander accused of war crimes, the incumbent's businessman brother, and another former foreign minister who is the only candidate to have put a woman on his ticket.

Karzai has not yet thrown his backing behind any of the candidates, saying his only contribution will be his single ballot as an Afghan citizen.

But as he intends to stay in Kabul after the vote, living a stone's throw from the palace, and will be dependent on his successor for security, he is expected to use his political and financial leverage behind the scenes.

The two-month campaign period ends on 2 April, then there is a "silent period" before polling day to allow voters to weigh up the campaigns.

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« Reply #11690 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:11 AM »

Protesters Disrupt Thai Voting, Forcing Additional Elections


BANGKOK — Protesters seeking to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra disrupted Thailand’s general election on Sunday in what appeared to be a prelude to more political upheaval.

The opposition forces, who represent a minority of Thais and are seeking to replace the country’s elected government with an appointed council of technocrats, said they would challenge the election results in court while continuing to hold street demonstrations in Bangkok, the capital.

Protesters stopped the distribution of ballot boxes on Sunday and pressed election officials to call off voting in a number of districts in Bangkok and in most of southern Thailand, the stronghold of the protest movement. Although no violence was reported during voting hours, a battle in the capital on Saturday between would-be voters and gunmen allied with the protesters left at least seven people wounded and might have deterred voters the next day.

One of those unable to vote on Sunday was an election commissioner, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, whose polling place in Bangkok was shut because protesters prevented the delivery of ballot boxes. Furious Bangkok residents filed complaints at police stations while protesters nearby, many of them looking threatening with military-style clothing and covered faces, blocked access to roads near polling places.

“This is the dark ages,” said Wantanee Suthachiva, a businesswoman who was turned away from her polling place.

In a stark illustration of the divisions in Thailand, the election went smoothly in northern, central and eastern regions. Voting was successfully carried out in nearly 90 percent of the country’s 375 electoral districts; the disruptions were limited to Bangkok and the south.

But the protesters’ actions — both on Sunday and during the registration process leading up to the vote — will force a series of smaller elections before any government can be formed, a process that is likely to take months.

The leader of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, who had urged Thais to boycott the election on the ground that it would return Ms. Yingluck to power, said Sunday was the day “when you choose your side.”

Among those who did not vote were television actors and middle- and upper-class Bangkok residents, who, along with southerners, form the core of the protest movement. Instead, protesters held what they called a picnic in central Bangkok that included live music and political speeches.

The protest movement includes many powerful Thais, but the list of high-profile Thais who did vote on Sunday, including the country’s most senior military commanders, was also significant. The protesters have pleaded with the military to help them carry out their seemingly quixotic plan to replace Parliament with an unelected “people’s council.”

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army commander, who has given ambiguous signals to both the governing party and the protesters in recent weeks, appeared eager to avoid waiting reporters and left his polling place so hastily that he forgot to retrieve his identification card. But many people took the fact that he voted as an indication that the military supported an electoral solution to the power struggle.

The army has carried out a dozen coups in modern Thai history. But one military officer who was called in to keep the peace in Bangkok on Sunday said that the army itself was divided in the current conflict and that it feared a backlash by government supporters if it intervened.

Another would-be arbiter, the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, has been silent about the crisis.

Thailand has had many interruptions to democratic rule, including the coups, since it abolished absolute monarchy more than eight decades ago. But until recently, its electoral system — including the organization of elections and the transparent counting of ballots — had been praised as a model for less developed neighboring countries. Opposition parties had conceded defeat in all recent elections, and there had been no challenges to the legitimacy of the process.

The opposition Democrat Party and the protesters assailed Sunday’s election on the ground that Ms. Yingluck and her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon and former prime minister, were corrupt and had disregarded the rights of the political minority.

But many independent observers saw a naked power grab by the opposition and its allies in the courts and some independent state agencies.

Nattakorn Devakula, a prominent commentator and one of a handful of Thai aristocrats who have spoken against the protest movement, lashed out on Friday. “Those orchestrating this entire sham of a putsch will see their comeuppance in the end and it will be hell,” he wrote on Twitter.

The government has strong support in the northern and northeastern parts of the country, mainly because Mr. Thaksin was the first Thai politician to devise policies that specifically addressed the needs of poorer rural residents.

Mr. Thaksin, who was prime minister from 2001 until the military ousted him in 2006, has been widely accused of using his power to further his business interests. He was convicted of abuse of power in a politicized trial in 2008 and lives abroad in self-imposed exile.

Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and commentator, said there was no denying the governing party’s faults. Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party “is surely a big part of the problem,” Mr. Verapat said in an email, “but to overthrow them and the rule of law altogether will only provide them with legitimate call for more support.”

Mr. Verapat said he believed that the opposition would call for the election to be annulled on the ground that it was not free and fair because of the many disruptions. He called this argument “absurd” because the opposition forces themselves were responsible for the problems that plagued voting.

A nullified general election, he said, “would lead to much more blood on the streets.”

Although the Democrat Party, which represents the Bangkok establishment, has boycotted the elections and so will be excluded from Parliament, every other major party took part, and a number have vowed to become Thailand’s new opposition force.

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« Reply #11691 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:16 AM »

News Giant in Japan Seen as Being Compromised

FEB. 2, 2014
TOKYO — First, there was the abrupt resignation of the public broadcasting chief accused by governing party politicians of allowing an overly liberal tone to news coverage. Then, his successor drew public ire when he suggested the network would loyally toe the government line.

Days later, on Thursday, a longtime commentator for the network angrily announced that he had resigned after being ordered not to criticize nuclear power ahead of a crucial election, unleashing new criticism.

These are hard times for the broadcaster, NHK, which is widely considered the country’s most authoritative television and radio news source and like its British equivalent, the BBC, has been troubled by scandal.

But the current controversies at NHK have also stoked Japanese liberals’ fears about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters, who critics believe are behind what they call the efforts to muzzle criticism amid a push to impose an expansive right-wing agenda.

The prime minister is already pressing for more patriotic textbooks and has pushed through a secrecy law that will allow Japan’s notoriously opaque government to hide more of what it does. The actions come as Japan is mired in an emotional tug of war with China and South Korea over their fraught wartime history and recent, potentially explosive, territory disputes.

“What I am worried about is that NHK will become loyalist media, become the public relations department of the government,” an opposition lawmaker, Kazuhiro Haraguchi, said in unusually harsh criticism in Parliament on Friday. NHK is “part of the infrastructure that forms the basis of our democracy.”

The lawmaker made the statements as a parliamentary committee summoned Katsuto Momii, the new president of the broadcaster, to explain remarks at a recent news conference, including his declaration that overseas broadcasts would present the government’s views on foreign policy without criticism.

“We cannot say left when the government says right,” he said when asked whether NHK would present Japan’s position on territorial and other disputes. He explained that it was “only natural” for the network to follow the Japanese government position.

He also said it should refrain from criticizing the secrecy law as well as Mr. Abe’s visit in December to a Tokyo war shrine, which angered China and South Korea.

The comments seemed to run counter to the stated mission of the broadcaster, which is funded by fees collected from everyone who owns a television set, to report the news “without distortion or partisanship.”

While it is nominally independent, the broadcaster’s 12-member governing board is appointed by Parliament, which also approves its budget. The board, which includes four Abe appointees, chooses the president of the network.

The bluntness of the questioning in Parliament reflected the deep suspicion shared by many in the opposition that Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party is stocking the governing board with people ready to stifle criticism of his conservative government’s agenda, including playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities.

Mr. Momii said during his testimony, broadcast by one of NHK’s own TV channels, that he apologized for what he called misunderstandings. “It is my intention to protect freedom of speech and unbiased reporting,” he said.

Still, he retracted only one of his remarks, in which he compared Korean and other “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels during World War II to common prostitutes; his view has been rejected by many foreign historians but has been espoused by many Japanese nationalists including, in the past, Mr. Abe. Even this retraction seemed less than heartfelt: Mr. Momii did not say the comparison was mistaken, but merely apologized for expressing a “personal opinion” while speaking in his capacity as president.

The public interrogation, just a week after Mr. Momii took office, was a rare public humiliation for the head of a powerful institution whose influential evening news program can still set the tone for Japan’s group of smaller, privately run networks.

NHK is known for everything from children’s shows to high-quality documentaries to its popular samurai dramas. The network also has a storied history. When former Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender after World War II, he did so on NHK’s predecessor. And the network is so entwined with the culture that during the country’s headiest economic era, workers exercised en masse to its iconic morning calisthenics music.

Experts say the newest controversy hurts NHK’s image at a time when one in four Japanese households refuses to pay its monthly viewing fee of $13 to $22 because of scandals, including one in 2004 when a producer used company funds to take a mistress to exotic destinations. The broadcaster has also faced widespread distrust for coverage of the 2011 Fukushima accident that some say complied with government efforts to hide the extent of radiation releases.

The latest accusations of political interference have also become a headache for the Abe government, which has already seen its high approval ratings slide after passage in December of the secrecy law. Many Japanese journalists saw the law as a way of intimidating would-be government whistle-blowers from speaking with reporters, further hampering the independence of Japanese news media already criticized for being overly cozy with authority.

“This is gross political interference,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who teaches journalism at Sugiyama Jogakuen University near Nagoya. “The Abe government has stocked NHK’s board of governors with friendly faces in order to neuter its coverage.”

The top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has denied that the appointments were politically motivated, but said the prime minister chose people whom he knows and trusts.

The last NHK president, Masayuki Matsumoto, suddenly announced in December that he would not seek a new term. Other news media said he was driven out by criticism from the Abe administration for critical coverage of conservative causes, such as nuclear energy and American Marine bases in Okinawa.

This is not the first time that NHK has been criticized for caving in to pressure from Mr. Abe. In 2005, a producer said that Mr. Abe and another Liberal Democratic lawmaker had forced the broadcaster to cut a scene from a program that showed a mock trial in which Hirohito was found guilty of permitting the military to use the so-called “comfort women” in brothels, according to the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers. NHK officials and Mr. Abe denied political pressure was behind the deleted scene.

And last year, Jun Hori, a popular NHK television news announcer, quit after superiors questioned him for more than six hours about a documentary he had made describing nuclear accidents at Fukushima and in the United States. It is expected to be shown this month at a small theater in Tokyo.

On Thursday, the commentator who more recently severed ties with NHK, Toru Nakakita, said the show on which he had appeared regularly for 20 years had told him not to say anything critical about nuclear power. An NHK spokesman said the demand was made to ensure balanced coverage during the coming election for Tokyo governor, in which nuclear power is an issue.

Mr. Hori, who works as a freelance journalist, disagreed on the motive. “NHK has become a place where it is hard to speak out against authority,” he said. “This is unhealthy for democracy.”

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« Reply #11692 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:18 AM »

Australia Probes Detention of Asylum-Seeker Children

by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 07:05

Australia's human rights watchdog launched an inquiry Monday into the detention of children under punitive government policies banishing asylum-seekers who arrive by boat to remote Pacific camps.

Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, said the probe would examine the impact of mandatory detention on more than 1,000 asylum-seeker children being held in immigration facilities in Australia and the more than 100 on far-flung Nauru.

"These are children that, among other things, have been denied freedom of movement, many of whom are spending important developmental years of their lives living behind wire in highly stressful environments," said Triggs.

The inquiry will examine whether Australia is in breach of international child protection obligations and measure progress on the issue over the past decade.

A similar investigation was held in 2004 into the then-government's "Pacific Solution" of detaining asylum-seekers arriving by boat on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island -- a policy aimed at deterring dangerous people-smuggling journeys from Indonesia.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died attempting the voyage in recent years.

The number of children held in immigration detention dropped markedly following public outcry over the 2004 inquiry's findings.

The harsh Pacific detention policy was revived last year by former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, who made it tougher still by mandating that anyone who arrived in Australia by boat would be permanently settled in PNG or Nauru.

Triggs said there were an "unprecedented" number of children in detention under the current regime compared with the 700 seen 10 years ago, and the conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott had offered "minimal cooperation" on the issue.

"In particular, we'd like to understand more about the mental health of these children. The instances of self-harm, how they're being treated when they're manifesting conditions of extreme anxiety," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"I'd also like to understand how they're being assessed to be sent offshore to Nauru. Why some are being sent, why some are not."

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rejected Triggs' claim that the government had been uncooperative, and said there were so many children in detention because of border security "failures" by the Rudd government, which was voted out in September.

"There were over 1,000 children held in detention when we came to office... because over 50,000 people turned up on illegal boats on Labor's watch," he said.

Morrison said the government would cooperate with the inquiry and any recommendations would "be treated with respect and considered."

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« Reply #11693 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:19 AM »

US warns Israel over apparent distortion of John Kerry statements

State department says it expects all parties in Middle East peace talks to portray accurately secretary of state's comments

Ian Black in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 19.27 GMT   

The US hit back at Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday after the Israeli prime minister warned that calls for boycotts of Israel to pressure it over settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are "immoral and unjustified" and would not achieve their goal.

In a public spat that reflected tensions over slow-moving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the state department rebuked Netanyahu for apparently misrepresenting the words of the US secretary of state, John Kerry. Another senior rightwing minister accused Kerry of serving as a "mouthpiece" for antisemitic views.

Speaking on the record at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, the Israeli prime minister said that the growing international boycott movement would only "push peace further away" by encouraging Palestinian intransigence.

"No pressure will force me to give up the vital interests of the state of Israel, above all the security of the citizens of Israel," Netanyahu stated.

The remarks followed Kerry's warning on Saturday that failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians would damage Israel's capacity to be a democratic state and could lead to more boycotts.

"The risks are very high for Israel," he said at an international security conference in Munich. "People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure. We all have a strong interest in this conflict resolution. Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100%, cannot be maintained. It's not sustainable. It's illusionary. There's a momentary prosperity, there's a momentary peace."

The US statement department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, noted that Kerry had been referring to the actions of others and resolutely opposed boycotts. "Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements," she added pointedly.

Two weeks ago Israel's defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, raised the political temperature by describing Kerry as "obsessive and messianic" in his pursuit of an agreement.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator, said Kerry was merely "expressing concern" for Israel's future.

Netanyahu's coalition government has registered alarm at growing talk of boycotts. In the past week, a Danish bank announced it would sever ties with Bank Hapoalim, Israel's largest bank, over the financing of settlements built across the old 1967 border in breach of international law. Danske Bank cited "ethical and legal conflicts." The Israeli bank said Danske Bank had no investments with it.

Pressure has been building up in the European Union for tougher measures to punish Israel for its settlement activity.

Netanyahu's remarks were mild compared to those of cabinet colleagues. Yuval Steinitz, the intelligence minister and a member of the prime minister's Likud party, called Kerry's comments "offensive, unfair and insufferable", complaining that Israel could not negotiate "with a gun pointed to its head".

Further to the right the economics minister, Naftali Bennett, from the religious and pro-settler Jewish Home party, said bluntly: "We expect our friends around the world to stand beside us, against antisemitic boycott efforts targeting Israel, and not for them to be their amplifier."

With the US pushing hard, Israel and the Palestinians relaunched peace talks in July after a long gap but these have so far shown little sign of progress. With an April deadline looming, Kerry is expected to present ideas for a "framework" agreement sometime in the next few weeks.

The boycott issue has been dramatically highlighted in recent days by the resignation of film star Scarlett Johansson as an Oxfam goodwill ambassador because of her appearance in an advert for SodaStream, an Israeli company based in the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, which is built on expropriated Arab land. The actress said she had "a fundamental difference of opinion" with the humanitarian group because it opposes all trade with Israeli settlements. Oxfam came under pressure from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Up to 100 Palestinian activists have established a new protest against settlements by occupying an abandoned village in the Jordan valley. Called Melh al-Ard – "salt of the earth" in Arabic – the campaign rejects the status quo "especially given futile negotiations destroying the rights of our people for liberation and claim to their land". It has called on international supporters "to stand with the demands of the Palestinian people and boycott all Israeli companies including Israeli factories and companies that work in the Jordan Valley and profit from Palestinian natural resources".

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« Reply #11694 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:26 AM »

Palestinian Leader Seeks NATO Force in Future State

FEB. 2, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Six months into peace talks dominated by discussion about security, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has proposed to Secretary of State John Kerry that an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.

Mr. Abbas said in an interview with The New York Times at his headquarters here over the weekend that Israeli soldiers could remain in the West Bank for up to five years — not three, as he previously stated — and that Jewish settlements should be phased out of the new Palestinian state along a similar timetable. Palestine, he said, would not have its own army, only a police force, so the NATO mission would be responsible for preventing the weapons smuggling and terrorism that Israel fears.

“For a long time, and wherever they want, not only on the eastern borders, but also on the western borders, everywhere,” Mr. Abbas said of the imagined NATO mission. “The third party can stay. They can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us.

“We will be demilitarized,” he added. “Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?”

The interview, a rarity for the Palestinian leader with a Western news organization, was his most expansive discourse to date on security arrangements, and it underscored the significant gaps remaining between the two sides. Israel has insisted on a long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley and on controlling the timing and conditions for the withdrawal of its troops.

Mr. Abbas’s proposal comes at a sensitive stage of the American-brokered negotiations. Mr. Kerry is preparing to present a framework of core principles for a peace deal, including a security plan, a border roughly along the 1967 lines, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and Jerusalem as a shared capital.

The specificity of the framework, and how the Israeli and Palestinian leaders express reservations to it, will likely determine whether the talks continue past the April 29 expiration date. One possibility, according to several people engaged in the process, is to extend the negotiations through 2014, with Israel agreeing to freeze settlement construction in areas planned to become part of Palestine under the framework, and Mr. Abbas holding off joining the International Criminal Court and United Nations agencies — steps that Israel and the United States vigorously oppose.

“It’s not a sacred date,” Mr. Abbas said. “Suppose by the end of nine months we got something promising. Shall I stop? I will not stop. If, after nine months, we didn’t get anything, if there is nothing on the horizon, we will stop.”

But Mr. Abbas also distanced himself somewhat from Mr. Kerry’s framework, saying, “He has the right to do whatever he wants, and at the end we have the right to say whatever we want.” This echoed the statement last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that “Israel does not have to agree with everything America presents.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s office refused to respond to Mr. Abbas’s comments. But the idea that Israel can rely only on its own military, not a third party, is a standard trope of the prime minister’s. He also says a fixed timetable is untenable, citing the volatility in the region. “Our attitude toward international forces is skeptical in the extreme,” said one senior Israeli official. “Timing can’t be artificial. It has to be based on performance, and we want to be able to judge what’s going on with performance.”

Jen Psaki, Mr. Kerry’s spokeswoman, said in an email that “there are many ideas being proposed from both the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it is premature to make any predictions about the final contents of a framework.” Others briefed on the negotiations said the secretary was trying to bridge the gap on security by pressing Mr. Abbas to extend his time frame, and by urging Israel to allow the United States, possibly with Jordanian involvement, to assess the conditions for withdrawal.

“The balance point has not been found yet,” said one Israeli security expert who has been consulted in the negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding them. “The U.S. understands the Israeli position, accepts that there should be long-term presence, but looks for ways to reconcile between Israeli security needs and Palestinian needs for sovereignty and dignity.”

Mr. Abbas, 78, was relaxed and confident, if not quite optimistic, during the interview, sprinkling his politics with bits of humor. It took place in an outer sitting room where the Palestinian president has met delegations of left-leaning American Jews and foreign dignitaries and where, he recalled, the former American peace envoy George J. Mitchell said of the Israelis before departing in 2011, “They foiled me.”

He sipped sweet tea and then strong coffee, twice using a small buzzer to summon an aide who brought a single cigarette. He spoke in English, occasionally leaning on two colleagues for translation. (It took a few minutes to decipher whether Mr. Mitchell had said “fooled,” “failed” or “foiled” — Mr. Abbas joked that all three applied.)

On recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Mr. Abbas said, “This is out of the question,” noting that Jordan and Egypt were not asked to do so when they signed peace treaties with Israel. He presented a 28-page packet he has been distributing widely that included a 1948 letter signed by President Harry Truman in which “Jewish state” was crossed out and replaced by “State of Israel”; statements by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion; and a paper on Edwin Montagu, a Jewish member of the British cabinet who opposed the 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

Mr. Abbas said that he had been resisting pressure to join the United Nations agencies from the Palestinian street and leadership — including unanimous votes by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee and the central committee of his own Fatah Party — and that his staff had presented 63 applications ready for his signature.

“No, I don’t want, I want to take advantage of every minute now, maybe we can achieve something,” he said. “I don’t like to go to the courts. I don’t like courts. I want to solve my problems directly between the parties.” But he added, “If I don’t get my rights, now put your foot in my shoe — what should I do?”

He would not, he said, allow a third intifada, or uprising. “In my life, and if I have any more life in the future,” he said, “I will never return to the armed struggle.”

The NATO security proposal is not entirely new: Mr. Abbas said he had won support for the notion from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and from President George W. Bush. He also said he presented the idea of an American-led force that included Jordanians to Mr. Netanyahu, at a meeting at the prime minister’s house a few years ago with then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I told him: ‘If you will not trust your allies, so whom do you trust? I am not bringing for you Turkey and Indonesia,’ ” Mr. Abbas recalled. “He said, ‘I trust my army only.’ ”

“We have to address, first of all, Mr. Netanyahu,” the president said. “Mr. Netanyahu is the key. If he does believe in peace, everything will be easy.”

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« Reply #11695 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:28 AM »

South African opposition party's plan to field black candidate crumbles

Democratic Alliance accuses Mamphela Ramphele of reneging on deal to join party before this year's presidential elections

David Smith in Johannesburg
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 23.13 GMT      

A historic pact enabling South Africa's main opposition party to field a black presidential candidate for the first time has collapsed in less than a week.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) accused anti-apartheid stalwart Mamphela Ramphele of reneging on a deal to join the party before this year's elections and said "she cannot be trusted".

The acrimonious end to one of the shortest, most shambolic political marriages in history underlines the struggle of South Africa's numerous opposition parties to mount a united challenge to the two-decade dominance of the African National Congress (ANC).

Last Tuesday the DA, eager to shake off its reputation as a party reflecting white interests, paraded Ramphele – a co-founder of the black consciousness movement who was mother to Steve Biko's children – as its candidate for president.

Kissing and embracing DA leader Helen Zille at a press conference in Cape Town, Ramphele declared: "We are taking away that race card and putting it in the dustbin."

But media reports suggested the united front was a facade amid confusion over the fate of Ramphele's own party, Agang SA, whose members angrily complained that they had not been informed.

By Friday Ramphele had issued a statement publicly contradicting the DA's claim that she would accept DA membership and insisting she is still leader of Agang SA.

After crunch talks on Sunday, the DA announced that the deal was off. Zille, a long-time friend of Ramphele who revealed Biko's death in custody during her days as a journalist, said: "Dr Ramphele reneged on the agreement that she stand as the DA's presidential candidate, and that Agang SA's branches, members and volunteers be incorporated into the DA.

"This about-turn will come as a disappointment to the many South Africans who were inspired by what could have been a historic partnership."

Ramphele, a 66-year-old medical doctor, academic and businesswoman, had been in talks with the DA since early last year but turned down its initial offer to launch Agang SA, only to return to the negotiating table after her party made little impact.

Zille added: "By going back on the deal, again, just five days after it was announced, Dr Ramphele has demonstrated – once and for all – that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity.

"Since Tuesday's announcement, Dr Ramphele has been playing a game of cat and mouse – telling the media one thing, Agang supporters another thing and the DA another.

"It is not clear what her objective is, but whatever it is, it is not in the interests of the South African people."

South Africa's Sunday Times reported that Ramphele and Zille had a "frosty exchange" less than an hour before Tuesday's press conference after Ramphele suggested that she would be presidential candidate for both the DA and Agang SA.

The now ex-spokesman of Agang SA found out about the DA deal just an hour before the press conference, the paper added.

Many political commentators were sceptical from the start. Eusebius McKaiser, author of the new book Could I Vote DA?, said the DA had been "panic stricken" and "tried to pull a fast one" over voters by parachuting in a black candidate.

"It's a demonstration of what happens when you make a hasty decision without due diligence. It was a massive and avoidable political blunder on the part of the DA."

The spectacular disintegration of the dream ticket is likely to afford some schadenfreude to the ANC, which, while assured of victory, is facing its toughest election yet.

McKaiser added: "For the ANC it's a gift. The embarrassment speaks for itself. Mamphela Ramphele's reputation is in tatters. The DA has been anxious to get a black African face irrespective of whether it's the right person."

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« Reply #11696 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:29 AM »

Al-Qaida denies links to ISIL in Syria

Statement denying any relationship with the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) seen as a bid to reassert authority over rebels

Reuters in Beirut, Monday 3 February 2014 08.45 GMT    

Al-Qaida's general command has said it has no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in an apparent attempt to assert authority over the Islamist militant groups involved in Syria's civil war.

The small but powerful ISIL has been caught up in battles with other Islamist insurgents often triggered by disputes over authority and territory, and has also clashed with secular rebels.

The internecine fighting - among the bloodiest in the three-year conflict - has undermined the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and dismayed western powers pushing for peace talks.

Rebel-on-rebel violence in Syria has killed at least 1,800 this year alone.

ISIL follows al-Qaida's hard-line ideology and, until now, the two groups were widely believed to be linked.

However, the organisations that have clashed with ISIL include Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's official Syria wing, which is led by al-Qaida chief Ayman Zawahri.

In a message posted on jihadi websites on Monday, the al-Qaida general command said ISIL "is not a branch of the al-Qaida group … [al-Qaida] does not have an organizational relationship with it and is not the group responsible for their actions."

In April, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIL, tried to engineer a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra, defying orders from Zawahri and causing a rift.

Charles Lister, visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Centre, said the statement "represents an attempt by al-Qaida to definitively reassert some level of authority over the jihad in Syria" following a month of fighting and ISIL disobedience.

"This represents a strong and forthright move and will undoubtedly serve to further consolidate Jabhat al-Nusra's role as al-Qaida's official presence in Syria."
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« Reply #11697 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:31 AM »

Libya’s Cache of Toxic Arms All Destroyed

FEB. 2, 2014

WASHINGTON — Even as the international effort to destroy Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpile lags behind schedule, a similar American-backed campaign carried out under a cloak of secrecy ended successfully last week in another strife-torn country, Libya.

The United States and Libya in the past three months have discreetly destroyed what both sides say were the last remnants of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s lethal arsenal of chemical arms. They used a transportable oven technology to destroy hundreds of bombs and artillery rounds filled with deadly mustard agent, which American officials had feared could fall into the hands of terrorists. The effort also helped inspire the use of the technology in the much bigger disposal plan in Syria.

Since November, Libyan contractors trained in Germany and Sweden have worked in bulky hazmat suits at a tightly guarded site in a remote corner of the Libyan desert, 400 miles southeast of Tripoli, racing to destroy the weapons in a region where extremists linked to Al Qaeda are gaining greater influence. The last artillery shell was destroyed on Jan. 26, officials said.

As Libya’s weak central government grapples with turmoil and unrest, and as kidnappings and assassinations of military and police officers accelerate in the country’s east, American and international weapons specialists hailed the destruction of the Libyan stockpile as a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy security environment.

“It’s a big breakthrough,” said Paul F. Walker, an arms control expert with the environmental group Green Cross International who has helped in efforts to demilitarize the American and Russian chemical weapons stockpiles since the 1990s. “Even though Libya’s chemical stockpile was relatively small, the effort to destroy it was very difficult because of weather, geography and because it’s a dangerous area with warring tribes, increasing the risks of theft and diversion,” he said.

Libya’s last two tons of chemical weapons were dwarfed by the 1,300 tons that Syria has agreed to destroy. But American and international arms experts say the need for easily transportable and efficient technology to wipe out the Libyan arms became a model for the Syria program now underway.

For Libya’s fragile transitional government, such collaboration with the West on security matters is a delicate issue. It gives the country’s leaders desperately needed assistance to defuse internal threats, but also risks accusations of compromising national sovereignty.

Asked about the American efforts to destroy the chemical weapons, Libyan security officials in Tripoli initially issued sweeping denials. One later briefly acknowledged the operation on the condition of anonymity, and then officials stopped returning phone calls.

On Sunday, the White House said that it would ensure that the Syrian government complied with an accord to give up its chemical arsenal despite missed deadlines and delays in carrying out the deal.

The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation” that the deal was “not falling apart, but we would like to see it proceed much more quickly than it is.”

The disposal of the last of Libya’s chemical weapons closes a chapter that Colonel Qaddafi began in early 2004, when his government turned over a vast cache of nuclear technology and chemical stockpiles to the United States, Britain and international nuclear inspectors.

At that time, Libya declared for destruction 24.7 metric tons of sulfur mustard, a syrupy liquid that when loaded into bombs or artillery shells and exploded creates a toxic mist that penetrates clothing, burns and blisters exposed skin, and can kill with large doses or if left untreated. The chemical was used extensively in World War I.

Libya had destroyed about half of these stocks when civil war broke out in 2011. Western spy agencies closely monitored the destruction site in the Libyan desert to ensure the stockpiles were not pilfered by insurgents.

When the new government took control in Tripoli that fall, it signaled its intent to finish the job. Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

The new stockpiles immediately posed huge challenges for the fledgling Libyan government, which had no ability to destroy the combat-ready chemical weapons, as well as for its American and European allies called upon to help.

The disposal site is deep in the desert, in an area where Islamist militants hostile to the West wield growing influence. It also sits on the front line of the struggle between Libya’s eastern and western provinces over political power and oil revenue. A defining issue in post-Qaddafi politics, the regional rivalry has often spilled out into armed blockades of the national highways and crucial oil-export terminals as well.

Using $45 million from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which has helped rid the former Soviet Union of thousands of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon and its Defense Threat Reduction Agency tapped the Parsons Corporation, a construction firm based in Pasadena, Calif., to work with Libya to oversee the rebuilding and safeguarding of the Libyan disposal site, which had been ransacked during the civil war.

Remarkably, the mustard agents stored in bulk containers at the site were untouched and their inspection seals unbroken, American and international officials said. These have all been destroyed, too.

Canada donated $6 million to help restore water, sewage service and electricity to the site, and to build living quarters for Western and Libyan contractors. Germany agreed to fly international inspectors to the site.

The project has relied on a custom-built device from Dynasafe, a Swedish company, to destroy the weapons. It is essentially a giant, high-tech oven called a static-detonation chamber. The munitions were fed through an automated loading system into a gas-tight chamber, where the toxic materials were vaporized at temperatures between 750 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Gases created in the process were scrubbed by special filters.

“The destruction of these munitions was a major undertaking in arduous, technically challenging circumstances,” Ahmet Uzumcu, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, whose inspectors supervised the destruction of the chemical weapons, said in a written statement.

Although American officials acknowledge that Libya is awash with conventional arms, they expressed confidence that the vast Libyan desert holds no other secret caches of unconventional arms for jihadis to exploit.

Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said, “This is the culmination of a major international effort to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from Libya and to ensure that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.”

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« Reply #11698 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:33 AM »

Sudan Tells Red Cross to Halt Work

FEB. 2, 2014

KHARTOUM, Sudan — The Sudanese government has ordered the International Committee of the Red Cross, which helps well over a million people in conflict areas in Sudan, to suspend its operations in the country, the organization said Sunday.

“We remain committed to the people of Sudan,” Jean-Christophe Sandoz, head of the group’s delegation in Sudan, said in a statement. “It is therefore our hope that there will soon be an agreement with the authorities allowing a resumption of our work to help those in need.”

According to the state-run Sudanese News Agency, the government determined that the group had not fulfilled the conditions for aid efforts.

“The I.C.R.C. has not met the state’s guidelines for humanitarian work, which has made us suspend its work until we reach an understanding,” Suleiman Abdelrahman, an official with the government’s aid commission, told the news agency.

In an interview, a representative of the Red Cross declined to elaborate on the source of the problem, but the group said it was in talks with Sudanese officials to resolve the matter.

The Sudanese government has long had confrontations with foreign aid groups operating on its soil. In 2012, Sudan expelled four aid agencies working in impoverished eastern Sudan, and the access of such groups to the conflict zones of South Kordofan State and Blue Nile State, where fighting erupted in 2011, has been restricted.

In 2009, Sudan expelled 13 Western aid organizations working in Darfur, shortly after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accusing him of committing mass atrocities there.

The Red Cross has been working in Sudan since 1978, with 700 workers currently in the country. In 2013, the work of the Red Cross in Sudan benefited more than 1.5 million people living in conflict zones, including Darfur, according to the group.
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« Reply #11699 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:35 AM »

El Salvador and Costa Rica Hold Presidential Elections

FEB. 2, 2014

MEXICO CITY — Two Central American countries, El Salvador and Costa Rica, put incumbent parties to the test on Sunday in what were expected to be closely fought presidential elections that focused less on ideology than on unease over unemployment, corruption and crime.

In both countries, left-leaning candidates either led or surged in late polls, but analysts saw the campaigns more as referendums on the status quo. The front-runners were seeking pluralities large enough to avoid runoffs in the spring.

In El Salvador, the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the F.M.L.N., sought to hold on to the presidency, which it won for the first time in 2009. Conservative candidates had won a string of victories after peace accords in 1992 ended one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Americas.

The F.M.L.N. candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander, is the vice president and has promised to expand welfare programs and benefits put in place by President Mauricio Funes, who sought a more moderate stance for the party and could not run again because of term limits.

Mr. Sánchez, whom some conservative politicians in the United States view with alarm because of his guerrilla background, has also promised to rise above partisanship and work with political opponents. Early results showed him nearly 10 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor, but below the threshold to avoid a runoff.

Conservatives in El Salvador “no longer say Venezuela or Cuba are going to rule El Salvador, like they said five years ago,” said José Maria Tojeira, a former rector at the Universidad Centroamericana who closely follows Salvadoran politics. “The fear of ideological extremism has ended.”

Mr. Sánchez faced a strong challenge from Norman Quijano, a former mayor of San Salvador and the candidate of the right-leaning Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, who was in second place in the early results.

Mr. Quijano has been critical of a fragile truce brokered between leaders of two gangs in 2012 with the help of a security minister under Mr. Funes, and has promised to send the army after gangs. The truce has been credited for a substantial drop in the homicide rate, but extortion and other crimes have continued. More frequent disappearances and the discovery in December of a grave with 24 bodies have led skeptics to wonder if the gangs are simply hiding their victims.

But Arena has been hurt by a corruption investigation of former President Francisco Flores, who was Mr. Quijano’s campaign chief until Thursday. And on the eve of the election, Mr. Funes announced that another top Quijano adviser was wanted by Interpol in a sex-crime investigation in Panama. Those controversies could help a distant-third candidate, Antonio Saca, who was president from 2004 to 2009.

“The most important thing for the Salvadoran people right now is security,” said Luis Gonzalez, 58, a federal worker who said he had voted for Mr. Saca. “People are dying indiscriminately from such a big wave of violence.”

In Costa Rica, Johnny Araya — a former mayor of San Jose, the capital, and the candidate of the incumbent, centrist National Liberation Party — fought a surge in polls by José María Villalta, a young left-leaning lawmaker who capitalized on voters’ anger about unemployment, crime and corruption scandals that have put President Laura Chinchilla’s approval ratings among the lowest in Latin America.

But in early results, Mr. Araya was neck and neck with another centrist, Luis Guillermo Solís of the Citizens’ Action Party, a political newcomer who served in National Liberation governments and campaigned largely on fighting corruption and shoring up the government social security system.

Mr. Araya and Mr. Solís each had about 30 percent of the vote. Mr. Villalta, of the Broad Front party, trailed with 17 percent.

Thirteen candidates were running, with four top contenders: Mr. Araya, Mr. Solís, Mr. Villalta and another left-leaning candidate, Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement Party. The wide field was a sign of the fragmentation of parties and ideologies in Costa Rica, said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president who is now political secretary at the Organization of American States. Even in the final hours, many voters were undecided.

“Party loyalty has all but dissolved,” Mr. Casas-Zamora said. “The feeling is there is a desire to reject the status quo, less of a commitment to ideology.”

Mr. Villalta had appeared to gain strength in the past several months, rising from a dark horse to a top contender, with promises to tackle inequality in a nation where the economy is growing but many people remain unemployed or underemployed.

Although Costa Rica is not nearly as violent as Central American nations where drug gangs contest trafficking routes, it is increasingly becoming a transit point, drug crimes are more frequent than they used to be, and high-profile crimes like the murder of a well-known sea turtle conservationist, Jairo Mora, have shocked the country.

In an environmentally conscious nation, Mr. Villalta made Mr. Mora’s death a campaign issue. But his opponents sought to tarnish him by pointing out his party’s roots in communist ideology, and Mr. Casas-Zamora and other analysts suggested that Mr. Solís might appeal to voters dissatisfied with the government but not ready to turn to the left.

Mr. Araya tried to distance himself from the Chinchilla administration and said he would be best suited to tackling the public debt, including, if necessary, by imposing new taxes.

No matter who wins, the political splintering will make it hard to get laws through a legislature where no party has a majority, said Bruce Wilson, a professor at the University of Central Florida who studies Costa Rican politics.

“That is an even bigger mess,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a mass mandate, from the polling data. If Congress is so fractious, to get your agenda through will be very difficult.”

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