31 May 2013

Sharif forms government after Pakistan poll

Having been toppled in a 1999 military coup, jailed and exiled, Pakistan‘s Nawaz Sharif has now made a triumphant election comeback and looks set to form a stable government capable of implementing reforms needed to rescue the country’s fragile economy.

Sharif may not have won enough seats to rule on his own but has built up enough momentum to avoid having to form a coalition with his main rivals, former cricketer Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

He held off a challenge from Khan, who had hoped to break decades of dominance by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the PPP, led by the Bhutto family.

The two parties have formed governments whenever the military, the most powerful institution in the nuclear-armed nation, has allowed civilian rule.

US President Barack Obama congratulated Pakistanis for the successful election and said the United States would work with the new government as an equal partner.

‘By conducting competitive campaigns, freely exercising your democratic rights, and persevering despite intimidation by violent extremists, you have affirmed a commitment to democratic rule that will be critical to achieving peace and prosperity for all Pakistanis for years to come,’ Obama said in a statement.

But facing Islamist militant violence, endemic corruption, chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure, even Sharif has described Pakistan as a ‘mess’.

Khan put up a strong fight and he will remain a force in politics, most likely becoming the main opposition figure. The PPP, which had led the government for the last five years, came in third place.

(Pics, side by side, of Nawaz Sharif and of people at polls in Pakistan)

Afghan interpreters can come to UK

Around 600 Afghan interpreters are to be offered the chance to settle in Britain after an apparent coalition rethink.

About half the staff working with UK forces are expected to be granted visas in recognition of risks to their personal safety. The proposals could see all interpreters who have been in the job more than 12 months and put themselves in physical danger offered a resettlement package.

However, they will need to have worked between December 2012 and December 2014, when troops are due to leave, to be eligible.

It is estimated that about half the interpreters – roughly 600 – will qualify for resettlement in the UK. They could be offered a five-year visa for themselves and their families, with help relocating and finding accommodation and work in the UK.

Interpreters who do not meet the criteria – potentially due to lack of continuous service or low personal risk – would be given a five-year training and education package with the Afghan security forces on existing security force salaries.

The move comes despite David Cameron previously suggesting most Afghan interpreters should stay on in their country to help rebuild it after years of conflict. But Liberal Democrats pushed for a similar approach to that taken with Iraqi interpreters.

(Pic of Afghan interpreters with British troops in Afghanistan)

India & China vow to end lengthy border dispute

The Indian and Chinese premiers have pledged to finally resolve a border dispute that has soured ties for decades, saying good relations between the two Asian giants were key to world peace.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, making his first foreign visit since taking office, said that Beijing was determined to build up trust with New Delhi as he and a team of ministers signed a series of joint agreements with India.

His host, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also stressed he regarded a good bilateral relationship as crucial to the wider region’s development.

Li’s visit comes after a flare-up last month in a long-running border dispute between the two countries in a remote Himalayan region. New Delhi accused Chinese troops of intruding nearly 20 kilometres (12 miles) into Indian-claimed territory, triggering a three-week stand-off that was resolved when troops from both sides pulled back.

The Line of Actual Control between the nuclear-armed neighbours has never been formally demarcated, although they have signed accords to maintain peace since the border region saw a brief Indo-Chinese war in 1962.

Singh said there was now a mutual desire to finally resolve the dispute and that a joint working group would be established to reach a lasting agreement. ‘Peace and tranquillity on our border has to be preserved,’ he said at a joint news conference in New Delhi.

Li said the border dispute was a historical hangover and that there was a desire on both sides to overcome it.

(Pic of meeting between Li Keqiang and Manmohan Singh)

China’s Li offers to help end Pakistan energy crisis

China and Pakistan should make cooperation on power generation a priority, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, as Islamabad seeks to end an energy crisis that triggers power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, bringing the economy to a near standstill.

Li arrived in the Pakistan capital under extra-tight security on May 22 on the second leg of his first official trip since taking office in March and after a visit to India.

Li’s plane was escorted by six air force fighter jets as it entered Pakistani air space. Security measures also included shutting down mobile phone networks briefly across the city.

Pakistan was one of the first countries to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China, in 1950, and Li told a lunch attended by Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif and President Asif Zardari that China and Pakistan should remain ‘trustworthy partners’.

Li said there was still ‘great potential’ for the relationship. Bilateral trade last year rose above $12 billion for the first time and both sides are aiming to reach $15 billion in the next two or three years.

‘Our two sides should focus on carrying out priority projects in connectivity, energy development and power generation and promoting the building of a China-Pakistan economic corridor,’ Li told media.

The power shortages have sparked violent protests and crippled key industries, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs in a country already beset by high unemployment, a failing economy, widespread poverty, sectarian bloodshed and a Taliban insurgency.

Qatada: ‘a proud and dignified man’

Radical cleric Abu Qatada is a ‘proud and dignified man’ who has been held in custody for too long, an immigration tribunal has heard.

The terror suspect, who recently pledged to leave Britain voluntarily after years of fighting deportation, was jailed in Belmarsh prison in March when his bail was revoked.

Requesting his release from custody at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac), Qatada’s lawyer Daniel Friedman QC said his client ‘has been deprived of his liberty more than any other non-convicted person in British history’.

Discussing Qatada’s public image, Mr Friedman added: ‘He is a proud and dignified man who looks at his fate in religious terms. He has been taken from his family on several occasions over the years into high risk security category-A units.

‘Against this background, he wants to spend time with his family to prepare to leave the country in a manner that safeguards the dignity and security of all involved.’

Earlier this month, it emerged the controversial preacher is willing to return to the Middle East when a treaty between the UK and Jordan is ratified by both countries. The agreement, unveiled by Home Secretary Theresa May last month, aims to allay fears that evidence extracted through torture will be used against the terror suspect at a retrial.

The government has been trying to deport Qatada to Jordan, where he was convicted of terror charges in his absence in 1999, for around eight years.

(Pic of Abu Qatada)

Nigeria offers amnesty to insurgents

Nigeria has offered an amnesty to Islamist militants who surrender as 17 people were killed on the fifth day of a military operation to try to crush the Boko Haram insurgency in the country’s northeast.

In their biggest offensive since the insurgency began in 2009, Nigerian forces are trying to chase well-armed militants out of territory they control in remote semi-deserts around Lake Chad, along the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

They have also launched a crackdown on them in north-eastern cities such as Maiduguri, where the sect has powerful cells.

Nigeria’s defence spokesman Brigadier General Chris Olukolade said the operation was continuing, with patrols sent out to secure towns and villages, and that special forces had killed 14 insurgents in battles that left three Nigerian soldiers dead and seven wounded.

President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on May 14 in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The operation has targeted areas of Africa’s top energy producer where Boko Haram, which is fighting to create a breakaway Islamic state in religiously mixed Nigeria, has bases and weapons caches.

Some analysts fear the offensive may have rendered the already slim chance of a political solution to the conflict even slimmer, but the president’s spokesman Reuben Abati denied this.

(Pic of Nigerian troops on streets, trying to flush out militants)

Hezbollah suffers big losses in Syria battle

About 30 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and 20 Syrian soldiers and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been killed in the fiercest fighting this year in the rebel stronghold of Qusair, Syrian activists have said.

If confirmed, the Hezbollah toll from the May 19 battles in Qusair near the Lebanese border would highlight a deepening intervention in Syria by the guerrilla group set up by Iran in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation troops in south Lebanon.

The reported Hezbollah losses also reflect the extent to which the Syrian conflict is turning into a proxy war between Shi’ite Iran and US-aligned Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back Assad’s mostly Sunni foes.

Western countries and Russia, an ally of Damascus, back opposing sides in this regional free-for-all which is also sucking in Israel. Three times this year Israeli planes have bombed presumed Iranian arms stocks destined for Hezbollah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was ‘preparing for every scenario’ in Syria and held out the prospect of more Israeli strikes inside Syria to stop Hezbollah and other opponents of Israel getting advanced weapons.

Israel has not confirmed or denied reports by Western and Israeli intelligence sources that its raids targeted Iranian missiles stored near Damascus that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006.

(Pic of violence on streets of Syria)

North Korea fires sixth missile in three days

North Korea has fired a sixth short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, defying warnings from UN chief Ban Ki-moon and South Korea after a flurry of similar tests.

The latest firing was confirmed by the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who said it was unclear if the North was testing guided missiles or rockets from multiple launchers.

‘North Korea launched two projectiles on Monday May 20 – one in the morning and the other in the afternoon,’ said a JCS spokesman.

Such drills are not unusual but they come as the Korean peninsula is only just emerging from a period of particularly elevated military tensions triggered by the North’s nuclear test in February.

In a recent statement, Pyongyang angrily rejected criticism that the missile exercises were a deliberate attempt to kick off a fresh cycle of tensions.

‘Military training… is the indisputable right of any sovereign nation,’ the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said. ‘Viciously taking issue with our military’s rocket firing training… is an unacceptable challenge and a wanton provocation,’ it said.

North Korea fired three short-range guided missiles off its east coast on May 18 and another on May 19. South Korea had labelled the tests ‘deplorable’, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Pyongyang to exercise restraint.

(Pic of N Korean missiles – maybe earlier one)

Two suspected militants killed in Yemen drone strike

Two suspected al-Qaeda militants have been killed in a drone strike on their vehicle south of the capital Sanaa, tribal and government sources said.

The strike follows another on May 18 in which at least four militants were killed in Abyan governorate, in southern Yemen. A Yemeni official did not say who was behind the attack, but previous strikes have been carried out by the United States.

The May 20 strike occurred at dawn in the Radda area in al-Bayda province, but the sources gave no further details and Washington does not usually comment on drone strikes.

The United States has stepped up attacks on Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), once described by a senior US official as the group’s most dangerous branch after a plot by it to attack international airliners was foiled.

Yemen is next to the world’s top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and major crude shipment routes.

Yemeni officials have said that at least six suspected militants were killed in two drone strikes last month. Another six suspected al-Qaeda members were killed in January.

Militants allied to AQAP exploited Arab Spring chaos in Yemen in early 2011 to seize control of some towns in the country’s southern provinces, including Radda and Jaar, where this latest strike occurred.

US heads to end Myanmar sanctions after landmark visit

A key US senator backed an end to US sanctions on Myanmar after a landmark visit by the country’s reformist leader, signalling a new normalization in relations despite rights concerns.

President Thein Sein, a general-turned-civilian who ended Myanmar’s long isolation from the West, met lawmakers at the US Capitol one day after the first White House summit by a leader of his country in nearly 50 years.

Senator Mitch McConnell, who has spearheaded Myanmar sanctions for the past decade over human rights concerns, said after his meeting that he would not support a renewal of a ban on imports from the country formerly known as Burma.

‘I believe renewing sanctions would be a slap in the face to Burmese reformers and embolden those within Burma who want to slow or reverse reform,’ said McConnell, who enjoys power as the Republican Party’s Senate leader.

‘Many of us who have followed Burma for years never thought reform would come to this troubled country. This is an important moment and I believe it is time for Congress to take responsible action,’ he said.

President Barack Obama has already waived most sanctions on Myanmar but Congress has kept the laws on the books each year, hoping that the threat of reimposing restrictions would motivate the government to address problems.

(Pic of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein)

Bulgaria’s largest party seeks to annul election results

Bulgaria’s largest political party has sought to annul the results of a May 12 election, threatening further uncertainty in the European Union’s poorest country where street protests against austerity measures toppled the last government.

The centre-right GERB party, which was forced to resign by mass demonstrations in February, won 97 seats in the 240-strong parliament, but in its complaint it said its rivals campaigned illegally the day before the vote.

Legal experts said the complaint had little chance of success because GERB would have to demonstrate its support was definitely affected, and it was unclear how it could do that.

‘GERB’s request for cancellation of the election has no precedent in the European Union,’ said Pascal Perrineau, head of the Paris-based Centre for Political Research. ‘You just cannot urge people to vote again if you don’t like the results.’

However, the weeks it may take the Constitutional Court to decide could deepen the political stalemate at a time when Bulgaria needs to draft a 2014 budget and negotiate EU funds up to 2021 – key to reviving the economy and creating new jobs.

‘We believe there are substantial violations on the day campaigning was banned and on election day too,’ said GERB member Krasimir Tsipov after lodging a claim to annul the vote.

GERB said its support was dented by an announcement by state prosecutors on the eve of the poll that 350,000 illegal ballots were found at a printing shop owned by one of its councillors.

Bulgaria will face new elections if the court cancels the May 12 results.

Britain asks EU to put Hezbollah armed wing on terror list

Britain has asked the European Union to put Hezbollah’s military arm on its list of terrorist organisations, urging Europe to respond robustly to evidence of the Islamist group’s involvement in an attack that killed five Israelis.

Britain’s request came after Bulgaria accused the Lebanese militant movement in February of carrying out a bomb attack on a bus in the Black Sea city of Burgas that killed the Israelis and their Bulgarian driver in July last year.

Britain also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.

There is growing concern in the West about Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, although British sources denied this had prompted its request.

‘We are calling for Europe to respond collectively and robustly following the atrocious terrorist attack at Burgas airport… We firmly believe that an appropriate EU response would be to designate Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation,’ a spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said.

Putting Hezbollah’s military arm on the EU’s terror list would make it harder for the group to operate in Europe and would help prevent ‘any future attacks by this terrorist organisation on European soil,’ the spokesman said.

(Pic of aftermath of attack at Burgas airport)