News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Court in Pakistan acquits Sharif

Court in Pakistan acquits Sharif

Nawaz Sharif

Mr Sharif is one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted opposition head Nawaz Sharif of hijacking charges, removing the final ban on him running for public office.

Mr Sharif was found guilty of hijacking then army chief General Pervez Musharraf’s plane in 1999, when he ordered it to be diverted.

Mr Sharif was then toppled as prime minster in a coup led by Gen Musharraf.

He was convicted by the Sindh High Court but he has always maintained that the charges were politically motivated.

Mr Sharif’s government had ordered officials to divert Gen Musharraf’s plane away from Karachi and to a smaller city in Sindh.

While he was imprisoned, Mr Sharif agreed to go into exile under a deal with Gen Musharraf who had taken over as Pakistan’s president.

Mr Sharif ended his exile ahead of the 2008 elections but was prevented from contesting due to the court conviction.

Pakistan’s president and prime minister were swift to congratulate Mr Sharif on the court ruling.

Mr Sharif’s acquittal will be viewed as a positive development which helps strengthen democracy.

It also puts Mr Sharif on an even keel with President Asif Ali Zardari of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Charges against him were withdrawn from court by the earlier Musharraf government in the name of “national” reconciliation.

But the court verdict restores to the political stage a potentially formidable opponent to Mr Zardari, correspondents say.

Mr Sharif has held office previously and can point to substantial political support across the country.

‘Set aside’

In its ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court said there was no evidence to support the charge of hijacking and acquitted Mr Sharif.

A judgement given by a kangaroo court nine years ago has been nullified by an independent and sovereign apex court
Siddique-ul-Farooq, PML-N spokesman

“Looking at the case from any angle – the charge of hijacking, attempt to hijack or terrorism – does not stand established against the petitioner,” news agency AFP quoted from the Supreme Court ruling.

“The conviction and sentence of the appellant are set aside and he is acquitted,” the order said.

The “petitioner had neither used force nor ordered its use and undisputedly no deceitful means were used,” it added.

The five-judge court headed by Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani heard the petition in June, but initially reserved judgement.

Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party has welcomed the order.

“A judgement given by a kangaroo court nine years ago has been nullified by an independent and sovereign apex court in the light of the constitution, law and evidence on record,” PML-N spokesman Siddique-ul-Farooq was quoted by AFP as saying.

In May, the Supreme Court had overturned a ban that prevented Mr Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from running for political office.

The ruling meant that Mr Sharif would be able to stand in elections due in 2013 or a parliamentary by-election before then.

The former prime minister and leader of the PML-N party is one of the most popular politicians in the country.

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Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

July 16, 2009

Madonna concert stage collapses

Filed under: Entertainment News, Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:23 pm

Madonna concert stage collapses

Madonna performs during her concert on 11 July in Belgium

The planned concert was part of Madonna’s Sticky and Sweet tour

A stage being constructed for a concert by pop star Madonna in France has collapsed, killing one person and injuring six, police say.

Technicians were setting up the stage at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille when the accident occurred at around 1715 (1515 GMT).

The concert, planned for Sunday, 19 July, has now been cancelled, officials announced.

It was part of the European leg of the Madonna’s Sticky and Sweet tour.

The cause of the accident was not clear.

The frame “started shaking and collapsing”, said Marseille city councillor Maurice Di Nocera.

“Fortunately, it didn’t collapse too quickly, as there would have been quite a few victims,” he said, according to AFP news agency.

Two of the injuries were serious, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

December 30, 2008

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Israel’s air assault on Gaza is “the first in several stages” of operations aimed at ending militant rocket fire, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

As bombing continued for a fourth day, another top official said Israel was ready for “long weeks of action”.

Palestinian officials say more than 360 people have been killed since Saturday. Four Israelis have died in rocket fire.

As EU officials prepared to discuss the crisis, some reports from Israel said it was considering a temporary truce.

Mr Olmert was set to discuss the idea of a 48-hour suspension, suggested by France, with his officials later in the day, the French news agency AFP said.

But Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a truce would allow militant group Hamas – which controls Gaza – “to regain strength… and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel”.

US President Bush agreed in a telephone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that for any ceasefire to be effective it had to respected by Hamas, the White House said.

A BBC reporter says Israeli tanks and troops are massed along Gaza’s border.

Correspondents say this could be a prelude to ground operations, but could also be intended to build pressure on Hamas.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the crisis in Paris.

‘Defenseless population’

On Tuesday, Israeli jets attacked more targets linked to Hamas, hitting a number of government buildings and security installations.

At least 10 people were killed and 40 said to have been wounded in the raids.

One air strike killed two sisters, the eldest aged 11, riding in a donkey cart in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, Palestinian medical sources said.

Palestinian children search the ruins of a destroyed house following an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip, 29 December 2008

The UN has called for an investigation into the attacks, which are causing heavy civilian casualties. It says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far were women and children.

Richard Falk – the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories – said the international community must put more pressure on Israel to end its assault.

“Israel is committing a shocking series of atrocities by using modern weaponry against a defenceless population – attacking a population that has been enduring a severe blockade for many months,” Mr Falk said in a BBC interview.

But Israeli officials said there was more to come.

The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action”, deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Olmert’s statement that the bombardment was “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet” was quoted from a briefing he gave to President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.

Separately, Israeli naval vessels confronted pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break the Gaza blockade by boat. The activists said one vessel rammed them; their boat made port in Lebanon with heavy damage on one side.

Rocket fire

The Egyptian-Gaza border was due to be opened to permit more trucks carrying aid to enter the territory, and for wounded Palestinians to be transported to Egyptian hospitals.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, under popular pressure to open the crossing fully, said that could not happen while Hamas, rather than the Palestinian Authority, led by its rival Fatah, controlled the border.

Demonstrators in Yemen, angered by Egypt’s co-operation with the blockade on Gaza, briefly stormed the country’s consulate in Aden, where they burned an Egyptian flag and hoisted a Palestinian one.

There have been angry protests against the Israeli offensive in many other cities across the Arab world and in several European capitals.

Hamas has pressed on with rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier in areas that have not previously suffered such fatalities.

Israeli military officials said rocket attacks landing more than 25 miles (40km) from Gaza put nearly 10% of Israel’s population of seven million within range.

Israeli political leaders have been under pressure to act against rocket fire with a general election looming in early February.

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has backed the offensive, telling the BBC that “Israel is using a fraction of its power to try to target surgically the terrorists”.

The strikes began less than a week after the expiry of a six-month-long ceasefire deal with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Correspondents say short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, it is unlikely Israel will be able to prevent rocket fire permanently.

Israel dismantled its strategic settlements and military bases in Gaza in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of the narrow coastal strip and its airspace.

GAZA VIOLENCE 27-30 DECEMBER
Map of attacks in and around Gaza

1. Ashdod: First attack so far north, Sunday. Woman killed in second rocket attack, Tuesday
2. Ashkelon: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Monday
3. Sderot: rocket attacks
4. Nevitot: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Saturday
5. Civilian family reported killed in attack on Yabna refugee camp, Sunday
6.
Israeli warplanes strike tunnels under Gaza/Egypt border, Sunday
7. Three brothers reported killed in attack on Rafah, Sunday
8. Khan Younis: Four members of Islamic Jihad and a child reported killed, Sunday. Security officer killed in air strike on Hamas police station, Tuesday
9. Deir al-Balah: Palestinians injured, houses and buildings destroyed, Sunday
10. Tel al-Hawa – Interior ministry and Islamic University badly damaged, Monday. At least three buildings in ministry compound hit, Tuesday
11. Gaza City port: naval vessels targeted, Sunday
12. Shati refugee camp: Home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya targeted, Monday
13. Intelligence building attacked, Sunday
14. Jebaliya refugee camp: several people killed in attack on mosque, Sunday 15. Beit Hanoun – two girls killed in air strike, Tuesday
16. Israeli soldier killed at unspecified military base near Nahal Oz border crossing – five other soldiers wounded in same rocket attack, Monday night.

December 1, 2008

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Stranded passengers at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok

Thousands of passengers have been stranded by the protests

About 40 empty planes have flown out of Bangkok’s international airport after authorities reached a deal with protesters camped there for seven days.

Thousands of travellers have been stranded since anti-government groups took over two airports last week.

The deal allows a total 88 planes to be flown out to other Thai airports, where it is hoped they can evacuate some of the blockaded tourists.

The crisis has economically damaged the country since it intensified last week.

Thailand’s deputy premier for economic affairs is reported to be meeting senior figures in commerce, industry and tourism today to discuss the damage being done.

As the backlog of stranded foreigners grows with each day, foreign embassies are beside themselves with frustration.

Foreign airlines

A spokeswoman for Airports of Thailand said: “Thirty-seven aircraft have left Suvarnabhumi (international airport) since the first aircraft of Siam GA (a regional airline) took off on Sunday evening.

“International airlines will have to contact us to take those stranded aircraft out of Suvarnabhumi.”

Twelve planes belonging to foreign airlines are stranded at Suvarnabhumi, as well as 29 from Thai Airways, 16 of Thai Airasia, 15 from Bangkok Airways, and 22 aircraft from other airlines.

With thousands of British citizens among the estimated 100,000 travellers, a spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said: “Bangkok’s two main airports remain closed but airlines have been able to arrange flights and transfers to and from alternative airports.

An anti-government protester outside Bangkok airport

“Some British nationals have been able to fly out but not in the necessary numbers.

“We have continued our consultations with airlines and Thai authorities…and action is being stepped up to enable people to travel in greater numbers, for example via Chiang Mai.”

Chiang Mai, in the north, is 700km (435 milies) by road from Bangkok, while the other option – Phuket, a resort in the south – is 850km (530 miles).

France has said it will send a “special plane” to fly its citizens out of Thailand on Monday, with “those in the most pressing situations…given priority,” AFP news agency reported.

Air France-KLM has already said it would fly travellers out of Phuket.

A few airlines have been using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 140km (90 miles) south-east of Bangkok.

On Sunday more than 450 Muslim pilgrims stranded at the international airport were taken by bus to the base where they were to board a plane for the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Spain and Australia have been arranging special flights to evacuate their citizens.

Thailand’s tourist industry is losing an estimated $85m (£55.4m) per day, and the government warns that the number of foreign tourists arriving next year may halve, threatening one million jobs.

The protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are a loose alliance of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

They opposition want the government to resign, accusing it of being corrupt, hostile to the monarchy and in league with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


Are you stranded in Thailand or do you have family affected by the protests? What are your or their experiences? Send us your comments

November 13, 2008

Iran envoy abducted in Pakistan

Iran envoy abducted in Pakistan

The car of the kidnapped Iranian diplomat

The diplomat’s car was hit by bullets

Gunmen have kidnapped a diplomat from Iran and killed his guard in the north-western Pakistani city of Peshawar, police say.

The Iranian diplomat was said to be the commercial attache of the consulate.

The incident happened a day after an American aid worker and his driver were shot dead as they traveled to work in a suburb of the city.

Violence has surged in the north-west in recent months with a wave of attacks blamed on Islamist militants.

A police officer told the AFP news agency that the diplomat was traveling to the consulate in Peshawar when the gunmen attacked his car.

“The attackers sprayed bullets, forcing the car to stop and then dragged out the diplomat while his police guard was killed,” Banaras Khan said.

Worsening security

The gunmen took away the diplomat in a separate vehicle, another policeman said.

Authorities have cordoned off the city’s main road and are trying to trace the diplomat.

In a similar incident two months ago, unknown gunmen kidnapped Afghan consul-general, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, from the same locality after killing his driver. Mr Farahi is still missing.

On Tuesday, American aid worker Stephen Vance and his driver were killed just outside their office in the University Town area in Peshawar. It is still not clear who the attackers were.

Map

Mr Vance worked for Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF) International, which is working to implement US-funded projects to help develop the troubled tribal belt.

Areas close to Peshawar – the biggest city in north-west Pakistan – are known to be Taleban and al-Qaeda strongholds.

The region has been hit by several bombings and suicide attacks recently.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber walked up to the gate of a stadium in Peshawar and blew himself up.

The attack happened as the governor of North-West Frontier Province left after a sports tournament.

He was unhurt but at least one man was killed and three people were injured.

The security situation across Pakistan has steadily worsened over the past few years, with Taleban militants holding sway over a large stretch of North-West Frontier Province.

But our correspondent says attacks on foreigners in Pakistan are rare. Across the border in Afghanistan aid workers and other foreigners have increasingly been targeted in recent months.

Gunmen attacked the car of a US diplomat in Peshawar in August, but she was unhurt.

September 10, 2008

Somali MP assassinated at mosque

Somali MP assassinated at mosque

Somali MP Mohamed Osman Maye

Mr Maye had publicly expressed his concern about the worsening violence

Somali MP Mohamed Osman Maye has been shot dead outside a mosque in the town of Baidoa, the seat of parliament.

He was thought to have been an ally of President Abdullahi Yusuf.

He is the first MP to have been assassinated since Ethiopian forces helped the interim government oust Islamists from power in December 2006.

Meanwhile, Islamist militants who took over the port town of Kismayo last month have imposed a curfew following the assassination of several residents.

“The curfew started on Monday night and will go on until we secure the town,” Abdurrahman Ali Mohamed, who is charge of security in the town, told BBC.

Insurgents of the al-Shabab group seized control of Kismayo in August after a three-day battle in which an estimated 70 civilians were killed.

Somalia’s third city, is strategically important because it serves as a port for the south of the country.

He says it is the biggest city the Islamists have seized during their 20-month insurgency.

Al-Shabab, a radical wing of the Union of Islamic Courts which ruled much of southern Somalia in 2006, has refused to participate in a UN-backed peace initiative taking place in Djibouti.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in fighting which has been worst in the capital, Mogadishu.

Earlier this week, Mr Maye gave a speech to parliament, expressing his concern about the worsening violence.

“He was shot in the head outside a mosque where he had attended evening prayers,” MP Amir Shaketi told the AFP news agency.

Somalia has been without a functioning national government since 1991 and has suffered ongoing civil strife.

September 7, 2008

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Russian navy ships in Sevastopol

The exercises will be the first of their in the region

Venezuela says it plans to hold joint naval exercises in its territorial waters with Russian forces in November.

A senior Venezuelan naval officer said four Russian ships would take part in the exercises, which would also involve Venezuelan aircraft and submarines.

Correspondents say the move is likely to raise concern in the US, whose relations with Russia have been soured by Moscow’s recent conflict in Georgia.

Washington already has rocky relations with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

In July, he called for a strategic alliance with Russia to protect Venezuela from the US.

Caracas and Moscow agreed to extend bilateral co-operation on energy, with three Russian energy companies to be allowed to operate in Venezuela.

Regional first

On Saturday, Venezuela’s Rear Admiral Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas said four Russian ships and 1,000 Russian troops would take part in exercises in Venezuelan territorial waters from 10 to 14 November.

“This is of great importance because it is the first time it is being done (in the Americas),” he said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency and local media.

President Chavez supported Russia’s intervention in Georgia last month and has accused Washington of being scared of Moscow’s “new world potential”.

Earlier, US Vice-President Dick Cheney launched a furious attack on Russia over the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

Mr Cheney described Moscow’s actions against Georgia as an affront to civilized standards and said it was reverting back to old Soviet tactics of intimidation and the use of brute force.

He added that Russia was also seeking to use its energy resources as a weapon.

September 4, 2008

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Anti-government protesters react as they watch a TV report about Mr Samak's address

Protesters listened to Mr Samak’s address, hoping he would resign

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has announced plans to hold a national referendum in an effort to defuse the ongoing political crisis.

An exact date has not been decided, but a referendum can be held 30 days after being approved by the Senate.

In an earlier radio address, Mr Samak said he would not resign or bow to the demands of protesters who have been occupying his offices since last week.

A state of emergency has been in place in Bangkok since Tuesday.

The anti-government protesters – from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is now in exile.

‘Threat of anarchy’

“I am not resigning, I will not dissolve parliament. I have to protect the democracy of this country,” Mr Samak said in his radio address on Thursday morning.

He said he was a defender of democracy against a movement that threatened to bring “anarchy” to Thailand.

“The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?” he said.

After his address, Mr Samak summoned his cabinet for an emergency meeting, and they agreed to hold a referendum to try to resolve the crisis.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
27 Aug: Authorities issue arrest warrants for nine protest leaders
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: PM Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
31 Aug: Parliament meets for a special session on the protests
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one person dead
2 Sep: PM Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns

A government spokesman said the referendum could take place by early October if the Senate quickly endorsed a bill to organize the vote.

Culture Minister Somsak Kietsuranond said the referendum would ask a range of questions including whether the government should resign, whether it should dissolve parliament and what people think about the ongoing protests.

After hearing Mr Samak’s radio broadcast, one of the PAD’s leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, told the French news agency AFP: “His speech only increased my confidence that what we are doing is not wrong. We will not go anywhere as long as he stays.”

The PAD has a passionate following in various parts of the country, especially Bangkok, and some powerful backers among the elite.

But it has little support in most of rural Thailand, which voted strongly for Mr Samak, and Mr Thaksin before him. Thai society remains deeply divided over the issue.

As the standoff has developed, some unions have begun supporting the protesters. However, a strike called by an umbrella group of 43 unions on Wednesday appeared to have failed – one piece of good news for the government.

But the prime minister’s attempt to contain the PAD protests with a state of emergency seem to have fallen flat.

The army has refused to exercise the extra powers he gave them, arguing that the conflict is a political one that cannot be solved by military intervention.


Are you in Thailand? Do you believe a referendum will diffuse the political crisis? Send us your comments

August 24, 2008

US warship docks in Georgia port

US warship docks in Georgia port

USS McFaul passing through Bosphorus Strait heading for Georgia 22 August

The USS McFaul is the first of three ships to arrive in Georgia

A  has arrived in the Georgian port of Batumi carrying the first delivery of aid supplies by sea.

Russian forces are still in control of the military port of Poti, to the north of Batumi, after withdrawing most of its combat troops from the country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the ceasefire, has urged Moscow to pull out those forces too.

Meanwhile, a train carrying fuel has exploded after hitting a mine near Gori, Georgia’s interior ministry said.

A huge plume of black smoke could be seen across the region, the AFP news agency reported.

Interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said there had been several explosions near an abandoned Georgian military base where the Russian troops, on leaving Gori, had left a stockpile of munitions taken from the Georgian army.

“Our teams can’t even get close to the area because it is in flames and the munitions are continuously exploding,” he said.

The spokesman suggested the stockpile or the train track could have been mined by the Russian forces. There have been no details about possible casualties.

Georgian authorities had been hoping to help thousands of refugees return to Gori on Sunday having carried out a mine-sweeping operation in the town.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia erupted after Tbilisi tried to retake its province of South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 and was supported by Moscow – in a surprise offensive on 7 August. The offensive followed a series of clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Crisis day-by-day

Eyewitness: Russian withdrawal

Russia’s game plan

The conflict left hundreds of people dead and created tens of thousands of refugees. Many have been returning to their damaged or destroyed homes since the Russian withdrawal.

The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR reported this week that, according to Russian estimates, more than 30,000 people from South Ossetia had fled to North Ossetia. Another 128,000 were estimated to have been displaced within Georgia.

International aid agencies are working on the ground and the US has already delivered some aid by military cargo plane.

The destroyer USS McFaul is reported to be carrying supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits and baby food.

Two more US ships are due to dock later this week.

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse, in Tbilisi, said that apart from delivering aid, the arrival of US naval personnel is undoubtedly intended to send a signal to the Russians – that America is serious about its support for Georgia.

But, he adds, the prospect of US and Russian armed forces actually meeting on Georgian soil is one that both sides seem keen to avoid.

Batumi is not a natural harbour for a naval vessel the size of the USS McFaul to dock but Russian forces have been fortifying their positions at the key port of Poti, further up the coast.

On Saturday, Mr Sarkozy, welcomed the withdrawal of Russian forces so far, but urged Moscow to pull its troops back from Poti and Senaki, which is the site of Georgia’s main air base.

Russia says it has a duty and a right to keep its forces in a buffer zone around the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – though it acknowledges that Poti falls well outside that zone.

Georgia map
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