News & Current Affairs

November 19, 2008

Saudi owners ‘talking to pirates’

Saudi owners ‘talking to pirates’

Sirius Star

The Sirius Star has 25 crew – who are said to be unharmed

The owners of a Saudi Arabian oil tanker hijacked by Somali pirates are negotiating a possible ransom, the Saudi foreign minister has said.

The Sirius Star is the biggest tanker ever hijacked, carrying a cargo of two million barrels of Saudi oil – worth more than $100m (£67m).

Saudi’s Prince Saud al-Faisal did not confirm whether a ransom was likely to be agreed, but said talks had begun.

Meanwhile, the Indian navy says it has sunk a suspected pirate “mother ship”.

INS Tabar sank what was believed to be a Somali pirate “mother ship” after it failed to stop for investigation and instead opened fire in the Gulf of Aden, an Indian navy statement said.

We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers. But the owners of the tanker, they are the final arbiters of what happens
Prince Saud al-Faisal

The captive crew on the Sirius Star include two British citizens, two Poles, one Croatian, one Saudi national and 19 Filipinos.

The Britons include Peter French, the chief engineer on board the vessel.

The other is Second Officer James Grady, from Strathclyde. Their families released a statement on Wednesday saying they hoped they would be home safely very soon.

There has been a surge in piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia during 2008. On Tuesday, a cargo ship and a fishing vessel became the latest to join more than 90 vessels attacked by the pirates this year.

The pirates who seized the MV Sirius Star and its 25 crew on Saturday are a sophisticated group with contacts in Dubai and neighboring countries.

Much of their ransom money from previous hijackings has been used to buy new boats and weapons as well as develop a network across the Horn of Africa, he adds.

‘Scourge’ of seas

Asked whether a ransom was being negotiated, the Saudi foreign minister said the decision rested with the owners of the tanker.

Map showing areas of pirate attacks

“We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers. But the owners of the tanker, they are the final arbiters of what happens there,” Prince Saud al-Faisal said.

“What we know is that we are going to join the task force that will try and eradicate this threat to international trade.”

The tanker’s Dubai-based operators, Vela International Marine Ltd, would not confirm or deny negotiations were taking place.

“Given the sensitive nature of the situation, and to ensure the safety of the crew members, we are not prepared to make any public statement on this issue,” a spokesman told AFP.

The UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said piracy was “a scourge wherever it appears anywhere in the world and at the moment the scourge is focused in the Gulf of Aden”.

He said the Royal Navy was co-ordinating the European response to the incident.

Shipping companies are now weighing up the risks of using the short-cut route to Europe via the Gulf of Aden and Suez canal.

However, travelling around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope would add several weeks to average journey times and substantially increase the cost of goods for consumers.

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November 1, 2008

Regional DR Congo talks planned

Internally displaced Congolese people leave Goma, 31 October 2008

Fears are growing for thousands of people who have fled into the bush

The Rwandan and Congolese presidents have agreed to try to end fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila agreed to attend a regional summit after talks with a senior EU official on Friday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband are due to meet the two men and visit Goma on Saturday.

The UN refugee agency has described the situation as “a total disaster”.

Aid groups say they are struggling to reach 250,000 people fleeing fighting between government and rebel forces.

European Union Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said the only way to resolve the crisis was through a summit involving all regional leaders.

He said agreement had been reached on the prospect of a regional summit after two days of talks in the Congolese capital Kinshasa and the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

“They are both fully agreed on the idea of having this summit,” Mr Michel told.

But renegade rebel general Laurent Nkunda had not yet been asked to join the talks, Mr Michel added.

A ceasefire is holding in and around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, but aid agencies say the situation there remains highly volatile.

Gen Nkunda’s forces are positioned some 15km (nine miles) from the city, which they have threatened to take unless UN peacekeepers guarantee the ceasefire and security there.

Refugee stampede

As diplomatic efforts to end the crisis gathered pace on Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday called leaders in Africa, Europe and the US to urge them to “do all they can to bring the parties to a neutral venue for negotiations”.

Congolese soldier with refugee women in Goma - 30/10/2008

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the current African Union chairman, and AU Commission chief Jean Ping said the summit could be held in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam or the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Food, water and medicine in the city are scarce, and many international relief workers have pulled out after reports widespread rape and looting by retreating Congolese troops.

The BBC’s Orla Guerin witnessed scenes of chaos at a refugee camp in Kibati outside Goma, as desperately hungry people surged towards aid distribution points.

Children were trampled underfoot and panicked aid staff were forced to beat back the heaving crowd.

Some who reached Kibati told the BBC they had more chance of getting food in the forests than inside Goma.

Trading accusations

The UN refugee agency said camps sheltering 50,000 refugees in Rutshuru, 90km north of Goma, had been forcibly emptied, looted and then burnt to the ground.

“There are some 50,000 people who were in those camps,” said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. “We don’t know where they would be, we’re afraid that they may have just dispersed off into the bush.”

The UN has more than 17,000 peacekeeping troops in DR Congo – the largest UN force in the world – but correspondents say it is struggling to cope with the scale of the current crisis.

The origin of the ongoing conflict in eastern DR Congo is the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Gen Nkunda says he is fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels, some of whom are accused of taking part in the genocide.

The Congolese government has often promised to stop Hutu forces from using its territory, but has not done so.

There have also been accusations of collusion between DR Congo’s army and Hutu guerrillas.

The Congolese government, for its part, has accused Rwanda of backing Gen Nkunda.

Rwanda denies this, but it has twice invaded its much larger neighbour in recent years.

Map


Are you in Democratic Republic of Congo? Are you affected by the issues in this story? Send us your comments and experiences

August 31, 2008

Sign of the times

Sign of the times

Courtesy BBC

As Russia and the West warn of a new Cold War after the Georgian conflict, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley in Moscow tries to imagine what it would look like.

Corridor inside the bunker
A complex network of narrow tunnels broke out into vast, high-ceilinged chambers with the sides curved cylindrically like the hull of a ship

Evgenia Evlenteva strode past a row of old radiation suits hanging on pegs like raincoats.

With a bounce in her step and a torch stuck into her jeans back pocket, she asked: “Right, it’s more than 60 metres (200ft) deep so do you want to take the stairs or the lift?

“Oh and by the way, the door weighs three tonnes. It’s made of lead and metal, and it still works.”

She jabbed a button and, with a groan and a creak, a huge slab slid back and let us into one of Moscow’s key Cold War nuclear bunkers.

It was decked out with its own air, water and food supplies for 2,500 people, should the city have come under nuclear attack.

With Russia and the West now exchanging accusations about starting a new Cold War, it seemed a good place to go, once hidden in a leafy street near the Moscow River and just off Taganskaya Square, where it linked up to the Metro station so the top brass and supplies could get in there.

International crisis

I found out later that, at the same time as our small tour group was taking the stairs down, Russia was testing an intercontinental ballistic missile from its recently modernized Topol system, more than capable of reaching Washington.

Russian Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles

Topol missiles during rehearsals for Russia’s annual Victory Day parade

Over the past couple of weeks, each day it has seemed either Russia or the West was ratcheting up the stakes, as if both sides were relieved to get away from the insoluble nihilism of Islamist terror and work on something that they could get their teeth into.

Russia spoke of tensions resembling the eve of World War I. Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that this international crisis marked a clear end to the relative calm enjoyed by Europe since the Cold War finished.

But it has been difficult to reconcile this exchange of apprehensions with snapshots here, where the bus stops are decorated with posters for the new Batman movie, hoardings advertise global brand-name products and you sweep out of a ring-road tunnel towards a skyline of cranes putting up new high-rise office blocks to keep up with Russia’s high economic growth.

No longer isolated

From the mobile phones, to the makes of cars, to the news-stand Russian editions of the celebrity magazine Hello!, it is pretty impossible to envisage how a new Cold War would actually work.

Room inside the bunker
It’s no longer safe down here from a nuclear attack… The bombs are too big now. It’s not deep enough
Evgenia Evlenteva, Moscow bunker guide

Boeing, for example, has a huge factory outside Moscow. Russia’s Gazprom, the conglomerate much feared for its ability to turn on and off Europe’s gas supplies, is one of the biggest companies listed on international stock exchanges.

And would some Western package of punitive sanctions mean that the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich would have to sell Chelsea Football Club?

In the last Cold War, Russians were seen as isolated behind their Iron Curtain, with their own ropey technology and a grim-faced population oppressed by secretive monosyllabic leaders.

Now you can barely stop them talking, as they ferry between 24-hour news channel chat shows.

As we finished our climb down the stairs, Evgenia snapped on the lights to the bunker.

It was a complex network of narrow tunnels that broke out into vast, high-ceilinged chambers with the sides curved cylindrically like the hull of a ship, made of reinforced lead and concrete.

The museum had put in telex machines, old telephones, maps and wooden desks to show what it had looked like.

Present-day thinking

Evgenia ushered us into a lecture hall for a video briefing, where I got perhaps a glimpse of Russia’s present-day thinking.

Black and white film drawn from once-classified Soviet archives began by naming America as the only nation that had ever used a nuclear weapon in conflict, and telling how the Soviet Union was forced to catch up to protect what it called its “sphere of influence”.

The 1962 Cuban missile conflict was a brilliant piece of brinkmanship that re-defined Russia’s global power.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. The motif of the film was nuclear tests, exploding into bigger and bigger mushroom clouds, both Russian and American.

New bunkers

“So,” I asked Evgenia, when it is finished, “will you be re-opening this bunker for the new Cold War?”

She pushed back her dark hair and creased her brow in confusion. She would have only been a child when the last one ended.

“No, why?” she said. “Who wants that? What family wants that – that you could be blown up at any moment? Why would anyone want to go there again?”

Then, as we set off towards the next tunnel, Evgenia came up to me and said:

“But it’s no longer safe down here from a nuclear attack, you know. The bombs are too big now. It’s not deep enough.

“We have new bunkers in Moscow, though. Maybe 100 metres deep, I don’t know.

They’re still secret and I’m not allowed to go there.”

August 27, 2008

Miliband seeks backing on Russia

 

 

Miliband seeks backing on Russia

 

 

David Miliband

Mr Miliband said Russia’s declaration inflamed an already tense situation

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband will visit Ukraine later in an attempt to build the “widest possible coalition against Russian aggression”.

The trip comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared he formally recognised Georgia’s breakaway regions.

Mr Miliband has branded the move “unjustifiable and unacceptable”.

Ukraine’s president Victor Yushchenko has described his country as a hostage in a war being waged by Russia against states in the former Soviet bloc.

And he said the brief war between Georgia and Russia had exposed serious weaknesses in the powers of the UN and other international bodies.

‘Territorial integrity’

Fighting between Russia and Georgia began on 7 August after the Georgian military tried to retake South Ossetia by force.

Russian forces subsequently launched a counter-attack and the conflict ended with the ejection of Georgian troops from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which already had de facto independence – and an EU-brokered ceasefire.

Mr Miliband’s visit comes after he urged Russia to “abide by international law” and to withdraw its troops to positions they held before the confrontation.

Our aim is to suffocate aggression
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

He said Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions “further inflames an already tense situation”.

“It takes no account of the views of the hundreds of thousands of Georgians and others who have been forced to abandon their homes in the two territories,” he said.

“We fully support Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity, which cannot be changed by decree from Moscow.”

Moscow’s move has been criticised by other world leaders.

France, the current holder of the presidency of the European Union, called for a political solution.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: “We think it is against the territorial integrity of Georgia and we cannot accept it.”

Nato said it was a “direct violation” of UN resolutions, and US President George Bush warned his Russian counterpart that his “irresponsible decision” was exacerbating tensions in the region.

Mr Bush called on Russia to reconsider and “live up to its international commitments”.

Cold War

But Mr Medvedev said the West would have to “understand the reason behind” the decision if it wanted to preserve good relations with Russia.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

He said Russia had been obliged to act following the “genocide” started by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in South Ossetia in August.

“The most important thing was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe to save the lives of people for whom we are responsible, because most of them they are Russian citizens,” he told the BBC’s Bridget Kendall in an exclusive interview in the Russian town of Sochi.

“So we had to take a decision recognising the two states as independent.”

He said a new Cold War could not be ruled out, but that his country did not want one.

“There are no winners in a Cold War,” he said.

Georgia said Russia was seeking to “change Europe’s borders by force”.

Most of Russia’s forces pulled out of the rest of Georgia last Friday but it maintains a presence both within the two rebel regions and in buffer zones imposed round their boundaries.

Mr Medvedev has blamed Georgia for failing to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.

August 20, 2008

Russia rejects UN Georgia draft

Russia rejects UN Georgia draft

Captive Georgians atop of a Russian tank in Poti, Georgia, on 19 August 2008

Russia paraded captive Georgians on armoured vehicles

Russia has rejected a draft UN Security Council resolution on Georgia, saying it contradicted the terms of last week’s ceasefire deal.

The draft text called on Russia to pull back its forces to the positions held before the current conflict.

But Russia says the truce allows its troops to stay in a buffer zone on the Georgia side of South Ossetia’s border.

Moscow earlier dismissed a NATO warning that normal relations were impossible while its troops remained in Georgia.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

Georgia says its action was in response to continuous provocation.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is visiting the region, is to visit a camp for displaced people in Georgia on Wednesday. Tens of thousand of people have been made homeless by the recent conflict.

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
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

On Tuesday, Mr Miliband held talks with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to update him on Nato’s reaction at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels which demanded that Russia pull its troops out of Georgia.

The foreign secretary criticised Russia’s failure to keep to a promise to withdraw troops from Georgia.

Meanwhile, a Russia’s main security service, the FSB, says a Russian officer has been detained accused of spying for Georgia.

An ethnic Georgian, Mikhail Khachidze was arrested in the southern Russian region of Stavropol near Georgia, an FSB spokesman said.

“[He] was involved in collecting secret information on Russian armed forces, its combat readiness as well as data on other servicemen,” he said.

Russian veto

At the UN, Russia’s ambassador said the French-drafted UN resolution went against the terms of the ceasefire brokered by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Vitaly Churkin said the resolution should incorporate all elements of the six-point peace plan agreed last week.

He also objected to language in the draft reaffirming Georgia’s territorial integrity, saying South Ossetia and Abkhazia did not want to be part of Georgia.

Russia can veto UN resolutions and the ambassador told the BBC that putting the text to a vote would be pointless.

He said: “It’s a waste of time because the process of the withdrawal of Russian forces will continue.”

HAVE YOUR SAY
As an American, I find Bush’s and Rice’s comments regarding the attacks on a sovereign nation in the 21st Century just too embarrassing to bear

B Coyle, Maryland

Following a rebuke from Nato’s 26 foreign ministers in Brussels, Moscow accused NATO of bias in favor of the “criminal regime” in Tbilisi.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia risked becoming the “outlaw” of the conflict, in an interview with CBS news on the sidelines of the NATO emergency meeting.

Russia says President Dmitry Medvedev told President Sarkozy that by Friday, Russian troops would either be sent home, be pulled back to South Ossetia or to a buffer zone along the border.

Russia said it had begun a pullback on Tuesday as it withdrew 11 military vehicles from the Georgian town of Gori.

A Russian officer told reporters invited to watch that the column was heading for South Ossetia and then home to Russia, but Georgia dismissed it all as a show.

Correspondents there say there are still several artillery positions and checkpoints in Gori.

And the operators of the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti told the BBC that Russian forces had seized the commercial harbour.

In an apparent goodwill gesture on Tuesday, the two sides exchanged prisoners at a checkpoint near Tbilisi, but on the same day Russia paraded captive Georgians on armored vehicles.

Map of region

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