31 December 2012

UAE arrests cell planning attacks

Security forces in the United Arab Emirates have arrested a cell of UAE and Saudi Arabian citizens which was planning to carry out militant attacks in both countries and other states, the official news agency WAM has said.

The US-allied UAE, a federation of seven emirates and a major oil exporter that has supported Western counter-terrorism efforts in the region, has been spared any attack by al-Qaeda and other insurgency groups.

But some of its emirates have seen a rise in Islamist sentiment in recent years, and Dubai, a business and tourism hub and cosmopolitan city that attracts many Westerners, could make an attractive target for Islamist militants, analysts say.

Those arrested had acquired materials and equipment for use in what WAM called terrorist operations.

‘The security authorities in the UAE, in coordination with the related security parties in Saudi Arabia, announced the arrest of an organised cell from the deviant group that was planning to carry out actions against national security of both countries and some brotherly states,’ WAM said, without elaborating.

The phrase ‘the deviant group is often used by authorities in Saudi Arabia to describe al-Qaeda members.

Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah said he believed it was the first time the UAE had announced a suspected attack plot of regional significance.

It ‘looks like it is a big one, mainly because it includes Emirati citizens and is not confined to the UAE but also has a regional dimension’.

In August 2012, Saudi authorities arrested a group of suspected al Qaeda-linked militants – mostly Yemeni nationals – in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has arrested thousands of suspected militants since the 2003-2006 attacks on residential compounds for foreign workers and on Saudi government facilities in which dozens of people were killed.

Syria peace envoy urges ‘real’ change

International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has called for ‘real change’ in war-torn Syria and the installation of a transitional government with full powers until elections can be held.

The envoy unveiled his initiative in Damascus as Russia, the most powerful ally of Syria’s government, denied the existence of a joint peace plan with the United States, amid a flurry of year-end diplomatic activity on the crisis.

‘Change should not be cosmetic; the Syrian people need and require real change, and everyone understands what that means,’ the UN-Arab League envoy said on the fifth day of his latest peace mission to Syria.

‘We need to form a government with all powers… which assumes power during a period of transition. That transition period will end with elections,’ Brahimi told reporters.

He did not specify a date for the envisaged elections, either presidential or parliamentary depending on what could be agreed. He also made no mention on the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, whose current term expires in 2014.

‘The transition period should not lead to the collapse of the state and its institutions,’ Brahimi said, adding the initiative was incomplete. We prefer… a project whose facilitation the parties have agreed upon, and, if they do not, the last solution is going to the (UN) Security Council which will make a binding resolution.’

Brahimi, who while in Damascus has held talks with Assad as well as with opposition groups tolerated by the regime, replaced former UN chief Kofi Annan after his dramatic resignation in August over what he said was the failure of major powers to back his own six-point peace plan.

Pakistan Taliban spokesman outlines conditions for ceasefire

The Pakistani Taliban have outlined conditions for a ceasefire, including the adoption of Islamic law and a break with the United States, a spokesman said – an offer a senior government official described as ‘preposterous’.

The Taliban, in a letter sent to the Pakistan daily The News, also demanded that Pakistan stop its involvement in the war pitting Afghan insurgents against the Kabul government and refocus on a war of ‘revenge’ against India.

The letter from Taliban spokesman Amir Muawiya comes as the focus in Afghanistan shifts from a military push by NATO troops to potential peace talks, and amid speculation of a rift between top Pakistan Taliban leaders.

Military officials said last month that Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud had lost operational command to his deputy, Wali ur-Rehman, who is considered to be more open to reconciliation with the Pakistani government. The Taliban deny Mehsud has lost command.

The Pakistani Taliban are a separate entity allied to the Afghan Taliban. Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), they have launched devastating attacks against the Pakistani military and civilians.

‘They are a bunch of criminals. This is not the Afghan Taliban. They are not open to talks,’ said one senior government official. ‘No one can take such an offer or terms seriously. The TTP is not a proper entity, certainly not one any government can negotiate with.’

The ceasefire conditions said Pakistan should rewrite its laws and constitution according to Islamic law.

The militants accused Pakistan’s army of acting as ‘mercenaries’ for America and pledged to continue attacks on two major political parties they say serve US interests.

NATO troops are due to hand over control of most operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces in 2013 and officials have been eager to start peace talks with the Taliban there.

But the Taliban insurgency in both Pakistan and Afghanistan is fragmented and senior commanders often disagree with each other over strategy.

Hawkish Abe elected Japan’s new premier

In his first press conference, Japan’s newly-elected prime minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to rebuild the economy and mend Japan’s alliance with the United States in the face of an assertive China.

Abe was elected premier by the lower house of parliament after sweeping to power on a hawkish platform of getting tough on diplomatic issues while fixing the economy.

‘A strong economy is the source of Japan’s national strength. Without a strong economy, Japan will not achieve fiscal reconstruction and have a future,’ he told the late-night press conference.

The yen recently tumbled against the dollar on growing speculation that the Bank of Japan will usher in further easing measures – a key plank of Abe’s campaign.

Abe vowed to defend Japanese territory and waters but stressed that his government will carry out a diplomacy drive to ‘win back’ national interests.

‘There are many issues concerning Japan-China relations, Japan-South Korea relations and Japan-US relations – which is the foundation of Japan’s diplomacy. More than anything, we must re-establish trust in the Japan-US alliance,’ he said, adding that he has spoken to US President Barack Obama and agreed to foster long-term relations.

Ties with the US were strained under the previous government, which pushed for the relocation of American bases in Okinawa.

Abe also said that his cabinet would stay focused on the reconstruction of the northern region that was devastated by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011.

‘By delivering results as soon as possible, I would like to earn the trust of the Japanese people and make this a stable government,’ he said.

Abe achieved a resounding election victory in December 2012 for his Liberal Democratic Party over the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Within hours of his election, Abe, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2007, unveiled his new cabinet as he rushed to draft an extra budget.

France won’t defend CAR government against rebels

France’s military will not defend the Central African Republic’s government against advancing rebels, French President Francois Hollande has said as regional African leaders try to broker a ceasefire deal.

Insurgents on motorbikes and pickups have driven to within 75 km (45 miles) of the capital Bangui in recent weeks, threatening to end President Francois Bozize’s nearly ten years as leader of the turbulent, resource-rich country.

‘If we have a presence, it’s not to protect a regime, it’s to protect our nationals and our interests and in no way to intervene in the internal business of a country, in this case the Central African Republic,’ Hollande said, speaking on the sidelines of a visit to a wholesale food market outside Paris. ‘Those days are over,’ he added.

The comments came after a plea from Bozize’s government for French military support to stop the SELEKA rebel coalition, which says it will topple the president unless he implements in full a previous peace deal.

CAR Foreign Minister Antoine Gambi declined to comment on Hollande’s remarks but said the government supported talks with the rebels.

Iran may open suspect military base if threats dropped

Iran would let UN nuclear inspectors into a military base they suspect was used for atomic weapons-related work, if threats against the Islamic Republic are dropped, a government official was quoted as saying.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes Iran conducted explosives tests with possible nuclear applications at Parchin, a sprawling military base southeast of Tehran, and has repeatedly asked to inspect it.

Western diplomats say Iran has carried out extensive work at Parchin over the past year to cleanse it of any evidence of illicit activities but IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has said recently that a visit would still be ‘useful’.

‘If the trans-regional threats (against Iran) dissipate, then they will find it possible to visit Parchin,’ Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi was quoted by the Iranian Labour News Agency as saying. The comments were also published by online magazine Iran Diplomacy.

Qashqavi was most likely referring to Israel’s threat of military strikes against Iran and the possibility of further sanctions by the West.

Israel has said it will resort to military action if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear work is entirely peaceful.

In December 2012, IAEA officials visited Iran to try to negotiate access to Parchin to resolve outstanding issues related to ‘possible military dimensions’ of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran has repeatedly said that a wider agreement on the IAEA’s inquiry must be reached before opening the site to inspectors.

Christian politician quits Egypt upper house as tensions persist

A Christian member of Egypt’s upper house of parliament has resigned, reflecting persistent political tensions just a day after the Islamist-dominated chamber took over legislative authority under a contentious new constitution.

The Islamist-backed charter, approved in a referendum this month, is meant to be the cornerstone of a democratic and economically stable Egypt. But the opposition says it is too Islamist and does nothing to protect minorities.

The resignation of Nadia Henry, who represents the Anglican Church in the upper house, also highlights worries by Egypt’s Christians, who make up about a tenth of its 83 million population, about political gains made by Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a 2011 revolution.

Under pressure to show tolerance towards all groups, President Mohamed Morsi recently appointed 90 members including Christians, Liberals and women to the upper house, along with Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafis.

But in a resignation letter published by the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, Henry said liberal and other minority groups were not represented properly in the chamber.

‘I agreed to the membership of the Shura Council (upper house) in the context of consensus that stressed all civil forces will get appointed,’ she wrote. ‘Since that did not happen, I hope you accept my apology for not accepting the appointment.’

She did not attend the upper house session on December 26, the first with the appointed members.

The opposition fears that the Shura Council upper house, which will hold legislative authority until a new parliament is elected in early 2013, will issue laws curbing freedoms.

Morsi recently signed the new constitution into law after two thirds of Egyptian voters approved it in a two-stage December referendum which the opposition said was marred by widespread violations.

China seizes TVs, satellite equipment in Tibetan area

 Chinese authorities have confiscated televisions from 300 monasteries in a heavily Tibetan part of the west of the country and dismantled satellite equipment that broadcast ‘anti-China’ programmes, prompted by Tibetan self-immolations in the region.

Some 94 Tibetans, including 81 this year, have set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule. Five self-immolations occurred in Tibetan-dominated Huangnan prefecture in Qinghai province, the state-run Qinghai news agency has said.

The government in Huangnan said its approach in tackling self-immolations comprised ‘guiding public opinion on the Dalai issue’, increasing patrols and ‘blocking outside harmful information’, according to the news agency, which is managed by the Qinghai government.

‘At this critical moment for maintaining social stability in Huangnan prefecture … (we must) strengthen measures and fully fight the special battle against self-immolations,’ the article said.

Beijing considers Nobel peace laureate the Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, a separatist, and has repeatedly denounced him and exiled Tibetan groups for fomenting the self-immolations. The Dalai Lama says he is merely seeking greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.

The article said the prefecture’s agricultural and pastoral areas had relied on certain satellite equipment ‘to watch and listen to overseas, anti-China programmes’.

The local government would invest 8.64 million yuan ($1.39 million) to install 50 transmitters that would broadcast 70 percent of the prefecture’s television channels, the report said.

The United States and several other countries have called on China to end repressive policies and to negotiate with the Dalai Lama.

Beijing has defended its iron-fisted rule in Tibet, saying the remote region suffered from dire poverty, brutal exploitation of serfs and economic stagnation until 1950 when Communist troops ‘peacefully liberated’ it.

PLO re-organisation key to Palestinian unity

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which has shaped Palestinian politics since the 1960s, is set for an overhaul as rivals Hamas and Fatah look to restart reconciliation.

The organisation is recognised as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’ and engages in activity on their behalf on the international stage, including negotiations and moves at the United Nations.

It was this body, with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as its head, which successfully obtained upgraded UN status for the Palestinians this year, but both the Hamas movement and Islamic Jihad remain outside of the organisation.

Leaders of Abbas’s Fatah movement have said in recent weeks that the so-called provisional leadership of the PLO, tasked with integrating Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would meet soon at the invitation of Egypt, which mediates Palestinian reconciliation.

‘There will be a meeting but we don’t know exactly when,’ Nabil Shaath, a Fatah leader involved in the reconciliation efforts, told the official radio Voice of Palestine.

‘Egypt is very committed to this but we are considerate of the internal situation (there),’ he said, referring to ongoing political turmoil in the country.

‘From our side, the priority is to end the conflict… to end the split, not only to bring Hamas into the PLO,’ another Fatah official, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said recently.

‘The PLO is always open for membership of Hamas or whoever, but the PLO has a political platform. And if that political platform is acceptable by Hamas and Jihad, they’re both welcome to be members,’ he added.

The PLO’s platform includes recognition of Israel and signing of peace agreements, stances which have been rejected by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and could prove stumbling blocks to their membership.

Three Afghans killed in suicide attack on US base

A December 26 suicide car bombing at a US military base near a flashpoint city in eastern Afghanistan has killed at least three Afghans and wounded seven others, officials said.

The blast, powerful enough to rattle windows four kilometres (two miles) away, took place at the entrance to Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost.

It came two days after an Afghan policewoman shot dead a US NATO adviser inside Kabul police headquarters, the latest ‘insider’ attack by a member of Afghanistan’s security forces on their foreign allies.

Khost province shares a porous border with Pakistan’s tribal belt, which lies outside government control and where US officials say the Taliban and al-Qaeda have carved out rear bases for operations in Afghanistan.

Camp Chapman lies on the edge of Khost city, which has been hit by at least three major suicide attacks this year.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for this latest attack. They have waged a bloody insurgency against foreign and Afghan forces since being ousted from power in a 2001 invasion led by the United States.

North Korean missile ‘could have reached US’

The long-range rocket fired by North Korea could have reached the US and eastern Europe, according to the South Korean defence ministry.

The launch was effectively the test of a ballistic missile capable of flying more than 10,000km (6,200) miles with a half-tonne payload, according to their scientists’ analysis of the rocket’s wreckage.

Its range covers the whole of Asia, eastern Europe, western Africa, Alaska and a large part of the US west coast including San Francisco.

The estimates have been based on analysis of a container recovered from the rocket’s first-stage splashdown site.

‘Based on our analysis and simulation, the missile is capable of flying more than 10,000km with a warhead of 500-600 kilograms,’ a defence ministry official said.

However, without any debris from the second and third stages to analyse, the official said it could not be determined if the rocket had re-entry capability, which is a key element of inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.

North Korea maintains the launch of the Unha-3 was not a missile test but simply designed to put the country’s first satellite in space.

However, most of the rest of the world saw the launch as a disguised ballistic missile test in contravention of the UN resolutions imposed after Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

South Korea is now analysing further wreckage from the rocket, including a fuel tank, a combustion chamber and an engine connection rod.

Sudan, South Sudan accuse each other of border attacks

Sudan and South Sudan have accused each other of incursions into disputed border areas, in a new setback to plans to secure their volatile boundary and resume cross-border oil flows.

The accusations come a day after Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he was willing to meet his South Sudan counterpart Salva Kiir to try to move forward stalled talks to set up a demilitarized border zone.

The African neighbours agreed to end hostilities in September and to resume oil exports from South Sudan via the north after coming close to war in April, the worst violence since the South’s secession in 2011.

But neither has moved back its army from the border, a step both say is needed to resume oil exports from the landlocked South through the north. Both economies depend on oil.

South Sudan’s army spokesman Philip Aguer said Sudanese war planes had bombed the area of Kiir Adem, which lies inside a 14 mile-wide (22.5 km) strip of land known as the Mile 14 area and claimed by both countries. Five people were killed during the bombing, he said, adding that all victims were civilians.

Sudan’s army in turn said in a statement that South Sudanese soldiers had laid a large number of landmines in Mile 14, after which clashes broke out between citizens and armed groups belonging to the South’s army.

Sudan has repeatedly denied South Sudan’s claims of launching air strikes.