31 July 2013

India & Pakistan edge toward talks though distrust remains

Nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India are edging closer to restarting peace talks that stalled in January after two Indian soldiers were killed and their bodies mutilated in a clash in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Pakistanhas proposed dates for resuming the talks, officials inIslamabadandNew Delhihave said, but the path to the negotiating table is littered with familiar obstacles that have hampered progress in the past.

A lasting peace betweenPakistanandIndiahas long proved elusive. With many fearing an upsurge in conflict inAfghanistanafter Western forces pull out next year, it is even more important for the two nations to ratchet down tension, according to some analysts.

Indian and Pakistani media saidIslamabadhad proposed talks on territorial and water-related issues in August and September. Indian officials said they were considering the dates. The talks would be at the level of departmental secretary.

Islamabadis also pushing for a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who made better ties withIndiaa theme in his election campaign in May – and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly inNew Yorkin September, Indian officials said.

But Pakistan must first address India’s concerns over ‘infrastructure for anti-Indian activities in Pakistan’, a senior Indian government official said, referring to India’s repeated charge that Pakistan arms and harbours militants in Kashmir, the Muslim-majority region claimed by both nations.

Indiaalso wantsPakistanto publicly recogniseIndia’s role inAfghanistanand deliver on its promise to give it most favoured nation trading status, a move that would mean lifting a ban on certain Indian goods.

(Pic of India-Pakistan joint check-post at the Wagah border nearLahore)

Afghan women’s rights at risk in peace process, says UN watchdog

Women’s rights in Afghanistan risk being further undermined in the fragile country’s peace process due to entrenched patriarchal attitudes, a United Nations watchdog has warned.

Afghan women have made hard-fought gains in education and work since the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, but fears are growing that these could suffer a reversal when most foreign forces leave by the end of next year.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said the Afghan authorities had promised it that women would be able to participate in the peace talks, thereby rejecting Taliban demands for them to be excluded.

‘We have had official assurances…I would like to consider a government’s word as credible,’ Nicole Ameline, committee chair, told a news briefing.

But the committee of independent experts voiced concern that ‘women’s interests and needs may be compromised in the peace negotiations due to deep rooted patriarchal attitudes’.

In addition, meaningful participation by women in the peace process is jeopardised by the fact that there are only nine women in the 70-member High Peace Council, the Afghan body created in 2010 to broker peace with the Taliban.

‘We have 18 months (before the NATO withdrawal) that consist of a turning point and we have to be absolutely mobilised,’ said Ameline, a former French minister. ‘There could be backsliding and we cannot accept that.’

The committee said there was already an increasing number of attacks on girls’ schools by Taliban groups opposed to their education, with girls falling ill in school from suspected poisoning in some instances.

Afghanistanhas a ‘high prevalence of violence against women’, marked by domestic violence, rapes, stoning, and so-called honour crimes, the UN committee said.

(Pic of Afghan women in burqas)

War crimes suspects seek UK asylum

Scores of suspected war criminals have applied forUKimmigration, new figures suggest.

Almost 100 suspects – with the majority likely to have been living in Britain for years – originate from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Rwanda, Serbia and Sri Lanka.

The Home Office, which says it is determined theUKwill not become a refuge for war criminals, identified the suspects last year, the BBC reported. The figures emerged from a Freedom of Information request made by broadcaster.

They show that in the 15 months from January 2012, the Home Office researched nearly 800 cases where individuals were suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It made ‘adverse recommendations’ against 99 people who had applied for British citizenship, asylum or leave to remain in theUK, the BBC reported. A further 16 war crimes suspects had applied to enter theUK.

It follows earlier figures suggesting more than 700 suspected war criminals were identified byUKimmigration officials between 2005 and 2012.

(Pic of UK Home Office building)

More than 200 escape in Pakistan jailbreak

More than 200 prisoners have escaped after Taliban insurgents attacked a prison in northwest Pakistan. The attack happened in the city ofDera Ismail Khan, on the edge ofPakistan’s tribal region, the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.

‘A total of 243 prisoners have escaped, six of them were later arrested by police,’ senior government official Mushtaq Jadoon told private TV channel ARY News, adding that 30 of the escaped prisoners were ‘hardcore militants’.

A series of explosions rocked the complex before the attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun rounds at guards, according to district police chief Sohail Khalid.

Some of the gunmen, who were disguised in police uniforms, detonated suicide bombs, according to the Express Tribune. Local resident Sharafat Khan said one of the blasts was so strong it rattled nearby houses.

Two policemen were reportedly injured in the raid, with soldiers and extra security guards brought in to cordon off the area.

An intelligence official said the attackers could be heard shouting ‘God is great’ and ‘Long live the Taliban’.

The prison, around 180 miles south ofPeshawar, houses members of the Taliban, as well as militants from banned sectarian groups. A group of ten prisoners escaped the same jail during a raid earlier this month, although seven were later captured and returned to their cells.

(Pic of aftermath of attacks at prison in Dera Ismail Khan)

Japan envoy meets China foreign minister amid strained ties

Japan’s top career diplomat has met China‘s foreign minister in the latest bid to ease strains between Asia’s two biggest economies over a bitter territorial row, while a Chinese official newspaper said Beijing had ruled out a leaders’ summit.

Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who recently cemented his grip on power in an upper house election, has been signalling a desire for dialogue withChinasince the victory, although he has also rejected any conditions set byBeijing.

Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki’s visit was the latest effort byTokyoto improve ties soured by the row over tiny, uninhabited islands in theEast China Seaclaimed by both countries.

Saiki metChina’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and a deputy inBeijing,China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

‘Both sides had a candid exchange of view on Sino-Japanese relations,Chinaclearly expressed its position on problems facing relations between the two countries,’China’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. ‘The two sides will continue to communicate through various channels and various levels,’ the foreign ministry added.

Saiki told reporters before leavingBeijingthat the exchange of views had been ‘serious and direct’ but declined to comment on a possible summit, saying he had to report to Abe first.

Earlier in the day, the English-language China Daily saidBeijinghad ruled out a summit and quoted an unidentified Chinese official as urgingJapanto take concrete steps to improve strained ties rather than issuing ‘empty slogans’.

(Pics of Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi – this may need a caption)

Top EU diplomat to visit Morsi

The EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has headed to meet ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as his supporters rally anew inCairo. A senior Egyptian source said the top diplomat visited the deposed leader, who has not been seen in public since his July 3 ouster.

InCairo, meanwhile, Morsi’s supporters marched towards security headquarters, despite warnings from authorities for them not to exceed their rights to peaceful protest.

Tensions have been running high since dozens were killed at a pro-Morsi rally inCairoon July 27. By July 29, Khaled al-Khateeb, the head of the central administration ofEgypt’s emergency services, had revised the toll in the clashes up to 82, including a police officer who died of his wounds.

The White House ‘strongly’ condemned the recent violence, and urged the military-backed interim government to respect the rights of demonstrators.

InCairoto discuss the political stand-off, Ashton headed to meet Morsi in the early hours of July 30, a senior Egyptian official said.

‘She went to see him where he is being held. She isn’t back yet,’ the source said on condition of anonymity, shortly after midnight.

The former president, deposed in a July 3 coup after massive protests against his rule, has not been seen publicly since his ouster.

(Pic of violence of streets ofCairo)

Syria says army retakes Homs district from rebels

Syrian troops have driven insurgents from a central district of Homs, tightening their siege on remaining rebel bastions in the city, which linksDamascusto the Mediterranean heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.

The military’s gains in Khalidiya district follow a counter-offensive by Assad’s forces, which have pushed back rebels around the Syrian capital and retaken several towns and villages near the border withLebanonin the last few weeks.

‘As of this morning the armed forces, in collaboration with the National Defence Force, took full control of Khalidiya,’ an army officer said, referring to the NDF militia which has fought in the offensive, along with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

The officer was speaking to Syrian television in a live broadcast from Khalidiya.

Deserted ruins and sprouting weeds in the rubble-filled streets around him showed the scale of the destruction and neglect in a city which was once an industrial powerhouse inSyria.

Also badly damaged in the Khalidiya fighting was the distinctive black and white stone mosque housing the shrine of early Islamic military leader Khalid ibn al-Walid.

Some activists disputed the capture of Khalidiya district, but then conceded that the army had control of almost the entire neighbourhood.

The army’s progress in Khalidiya comes a month after it launched an offensive inHomscity, building on its capture of the border towns of Qusair and Tel Kalakh, which were both used to bring rebel arms and fighters intoSyriafromLebanon.

(Pic of Syrian govt troops)

Nigeria bomb kills 12 in mainly Christian zone

Bomb blasts that ripped through a mainly Christian area of the largest city in northern Nigeria have killed 12 people, the military said, shattering a recent lull in insurgent attacks there.

At least four explosions were heard on the night of July 29 around outdoor bars in the Sabon Gari area ofKano, causing panic and sending clouds of smoke and dust into the air, residents said. One resident said a small church in the area may have also been among the targets.

The military blamed the attack on suspected members of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and said packages that caused the explosions were left in the area.

Nigeria’s military has been waging a sweeping offensive in the country’s northeast in a bid to end Boko Haram’s four-year insurgency.

Kano, a major commercial centre inNigeria’s mainly Muslim north, is not in the area targeted by the offensive. It has recently seen a lull in attacks, though it has previously been hit by heavy violence blamed on Boko Haram.

Nigeria, which is roughly divided between a mainly Christian south and mostly Muslim north, launched a sweeping offensive against Boko Haram in May this year, specifically targeting three states to the east ofKano. Since then, the security forces have claimed huge gains against the insurgents, insisting that they have put them on the defensive.

(Map ofNigeriashowingKanoregion)

Tunisia’s powerful union joins calls to dissolve government

Tunisia’s largest labour union has called for the dissolution of the Islamist-led government, increasing pressure on the moderate Ennahda party in the worst political crisis since the country’s autocratic leader was toppled.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) said a technocrat government should replace the one led by Ennahda, which has defied growing calls to resign by a secular opposition emboldened by the overthrow of the Islamist leader inEgypt.

The protests against the government in a country that led the first of the Arab Spring revolutions grew on July 30 when gunmen killed eight soldiers near the Algerian border in one of the bloodiest attacks on Tunisian troops in decades.

‘The UGTT calls for dissolving the current government and creating a technocrat government led by an independent figure,’ secretary Hussein Abbassi said in statement. ‘We consider this government incapable of continuing its work.’

Tunisians fear the return of political chaos just two years after autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee during an uprising that set off revolts across the Middle East called the Arab Spring.

The UGTT is a powerful force inTunisia, with around 600,000 members it can call on to strike. Opposition leaders have been trying to court the group to support its calls to oust the government and dissolve the transitional Constituent Assembly, tasked with creating a draft constitution.

Ennahda, which was democratically elected, has remained defiant despite increasingly violent and widespread protests. One of its junior coalition partners, the secular Ettakatol, recently threatened to resign if a new unity government was not formed.

(Pic of Tunisian General Labour Union flag)

Israeli-Palestinian talks resume

Israeli and Palestinian officials are due to meet inWashingtonfor a second day as peace negotiations resume after three years.

USSecretary of State John Kerry is to host a further meeting on Tuesday July 30 between Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat.

The three shared an iftar dinner – the meal in which Muslims break their daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan – at the State Department late on July 29. An official said after the dinner that it was a ‘constructive and productive meeting’.

It is the first time the two sides have publicly come face-to-face since the last talks collapsed spectacularly in September 2010 over continued Israeli settlement building.

Mr Kerry, who has spent months trying to get fresh talks going, has insisted that the details of the negotiations be kept private to give them the best chance of success.

The opening discussions were focused on setting out the agenda for future meetings, due to continue for at least nine months, rather than focus on contentious issues such as borders.

President Barack Obama has welcomed the start of the talks, calling it a ‘promising step’ forward but warning of ‘hard choices’.

‘The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith,’ he said.

(Pic of John Kerry, Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat)

Cambodia government rejects opposition call for poll inquiry

Cambodia’s government has rejected calls by the opposition for an international inquiry into allegations it used massive fraud to win re-election, and said it wanted parliament to approve a new cabinet quickly.

TheUnited Statesand European Union expressed concern about irregularities in the July 28 election but both said an investigation should be conducted by Cambodian electoral authorities, failing to endorse the opposition’s call for an inquiry involving the United Nations.

On July 28 the government announced that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen had won 68 seats in the 123-seat parliament, a sharp fall from its previous tally of 90. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) nearly doubled its seat total to 55, in a major surprise and a setback for Hun Sen.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy said up to 1.3 million names had been missing from the electoral rolls and complained about lack of access to the media as well as intimidation on the campaign trail.

Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, rejected such allegations at a news conference.

‘We have over 10,000 national observers and over 100 international observers who reckoned our election was held in a peaceful manner without any violence, free and fair,’ he said.

(Pic of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen)

Cyprus UN envoy: ‘peace talks could resume in October’

The United Nations’ chief envoy for ethnically dividedCyprushas said he anticipates a resumption of peace talks in October after a lull of more than a year.

Reunification talks between estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been stalled for the past 14 months, in part because of financial turmoil engulfing the island and its need for an international bailout.

‘They are looking to start talks in October,’ said UN special adviser Alexander Downer, referring to the two sides. ‘That is the indication they are giving and obviously there is a lot of work that needs to be done from now until then.’

Cyprushas been split along ethnic lines since a 1974 Turkish invasion which followed a brief Greek-inspired coup.

Turkeykeeps some 30,000 troops in the north ofCyprus, where it supports a breakaway Turkish Cypriot government that is not recognised internationally.

Ankararefuses to recognise the government ofCyprus, run by Greek Cypriots, which is a member of the European Union.Turkey’s stance hurts its own bid to join the EU.

The peace talks are focussed on reuniting the island as a federation, but have repeatedly stumbled on such issues as how to share power, redraw territorial boundaries and guarantee property rights to tens of thousands uprooted by the conflict.

Once talks resume, they will be led by interlocutors appointed by the two sides, a departure from the previous format in which the leaders of the two communities engaged directly in the negotiations.

(Pic of Turkish troops/Turkish military zone in the north ofCyprus,)