News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Honduran crisis talks break down

Honduran crisis talks break down

Supporters of Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa, Honduras (14 July 2009)

Mr Zelaya’s supporters say he remains the rightful leader of Honduras

Honduras’s interim government has rejected a proposal to solve the country’s political crisis, in effect ending talks with the ousted president.

The delegation’s head said Costa Rica’s proposal, which would see Manuel Zelaya return as leader of a unity government, was “absolutely unacceptable”.

Mr Zelaya’s representatives said they would no longer negotiate with the interim leaders’ current delegation.

Mediators have asked both sides to resume talks in three days.

“It was not possible to reach a satisfactory agreement,” said President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who is leading mediations and has presented both parties with a seven-point proposal.

“The Zelaya delegation fully accepted my proposal, but not that of Don Roberto Micheletti.”

Their take on power is based on terror and force instead of peace and reason
Manuel Zelaya

Mr Arias has warned of possible civil war if the talks fail and urged both sides to continue.

“My conscience tells me that I cannot give up and must continue working for at least three more days and that is what I propose to do,” he said.

Mr Zelaya, who is currently in Nicaragua, said one “must never close the door on actions of good faith” but that he doubted the mediators could achieve much.

“I do not think that efforts with coup-mongers, just as with terrorists and kidnappers, will work,” he told Reuters news agency.

“Their take on power is based on terror and force instead of peace and reason.”

He later said his supporters were “organising internal resistance” in preparation for this return to the country, which he indicated could happen at the weekend.

Mr Zelaya called on the international community to act in his support and to “back us in restoring democratic order”.

The US, which has supported Mr Zelaya, urged the political rivals to reflect on the “significant progress” made at the talks and to “commit themselves to their successful conclusion”.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the Organisation of American States (OAS) and other interested parties “underscore their commitment to the peaceful resolution of political disputes through dialogue”.

‘Dialogue over’

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and representatives of Honduras talks in San Jose (19 July 2009)

Mr Arias has warned of possible civil war if the situation is not resolved

“I’m very sorry, but the proposals that you have presented are unacceptable to the constitutional government of Honduras,” said Carlos Lopez, the head of the interim government, led by Roberto Micheletti.

He said Mr Micheletti’s side objected in particular to the first point of Mr Arias’s plan, which proposes “the legitimate restitution” of Mr Zelaya as the head of a reconciliation government until early elections are held in October.

Mr Arias also proposed an amnesty for political crimes committed before and after the 28 June coup.

Mr Zelaya’s representatives had previously said they accepted the proposal for reinstating the deposed leader and were “willing to discuss all the other points”.

But following Sunday’s statement from the interim government, the delegation said the talks were effectively over, although it had not ruled out future talks with the coup leaders.

“This dialogue with this commission of the de facto, military coup government is finished,” said Rixi Moncada, one of Mr Zelaya’s representatives.

Mr Zelaya was forced into exile on 28 June. The interim government has said he will be arrested if he comes back.

It prevented an earlier attempted homecoming on 5 July.

On Sunday, Mr Zelaya said it was his right as a Honduran to return to the country and “absolutely no-one” would stop him, Reuters reported.

He later suggested he would return at the weekend, saying by then his supporters would have “all the necessary activities” in place, “as laid out in the law and the constitution and international mandates,” the agency quoted him as saying.

It would not be hard for Mr Zelaya to cross the long and mountainous border between Nicaragua and Honduras, but there is great concern that it will lead to bloodshed if he does.

Mr Arias said he was concerned that a “good part” of the Honduran population own firearms.

“What happens if one of those arms shoots a soldier? Or if a soldier shoots an armed civilian?

“There could be a civil war and bloodshed that the Honduran people do not deserve,” he said.

‘No return’

Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in Managua, Nicaragua (17 July 2009)

Mr Zelaya said it was his right to return to Honduras

Speaking to the EXPRESS in Nicaragua on Saturday, Mr Zelaya said he would not agree to anything that gave concessions to the people who ousted him from office.

Arturo Corrales, representing Mr Micheletti, had accused Mr Zelaya of bad faith.

He said Mr Zelaya’s insistence on forming a unity government went against the spirit of the talks and showed “a wish in Honduras to keep violating our constitution and our laws”.

The negotiations in Costa Rica have benefitted the interim government by buying it time, and also because it has been treated with an equal status to the elected leaders, says our correspondent.

Mr Micheletti heads a military-backed government, which ousted Mr Zelaya amid a dispute with Congress and the courts.

Mr Zelaya had planned to hold a non-binding public consultation to ask people whether they supported moves to change the constitution.

His critics said the move was unconstitutional and aimed to remove the current one-term limit on serving as president and pave the way for his possible re-election.

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Iran bails UK embassy employee

Iran bails UK embassy employee

Protesters in Tehran, Iran, on 17 July 2009

The election sparked weeks of protests by critics of President Ahmadinejad

Iran has released on bail the last of the British embassy employees arrested in Tehran in connection with last month’s election protests.

Hossein Rassam – the embassy’s chief political analyst – was one of nine local embassy staff originally held.

He was charged with inciting the unrest over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election and is due to stand trial.

Britain has denied Tehran’s accusations that embassy staff had been involved in instigating mass demonstrations.

Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, a lawyer for the released employee, said he had left Tehran’s Evin prison, and that bail had been set at about $100,000 (£61,000).

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed Mr Rassam’s release, adding: “The detention of Embassy staff was completely unjustified.”

Protest ban

Violent street protests broke out after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in the 12 June vote.

At least 20 people are thought to have died during weeks of clashes.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

All gatherings were banned and the protests have died down in recent weeks.

Iran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking the demonstrations.

Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says the vote was rigged in favour of Mr Ahmadinejad.

The president and Iran’s main election body, the Council of Guardians, have rejected the charge.

On Friday former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani called for the release of jailed protesters.

Speaking at Tehran University, he also said many Iranians still doubted the election results, and that the media should be allowed to discuss the dispute openly.

“It is not necessary to pressure media. We should allow them to work freely within the law,” he said.

As Mr Rafsanjani spoke, thousands of opposition supporters rallied near the university – the first opposition demonstration for more than a week.

July 4, 2009

Alaska Governor Palin to resign

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:19 pm

Alaska Governor Palin to resign

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has announced she will resign as governor of Alaska on 26 July and not run for re-election.

Mrs Palin’s term of office was due to end in 2010.

Some have speculated that Mrs Palin, who is popular with the Republican Party base, might be preparing to make a bid for the White House in 2012.

But a report on NBC news suggested that Mrs Palin intends to get “out of politics for good”.

Her resignation means Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell will take over as state governor.

‘New direction’

Polls indicated Mrs Palin was very popular in Alaska during the first few years of her governorship, and although her approval ratings have dipped somewhat since her vice-presidential run, she still enjoys widespread popularity in her home state.

Mrs Palin announced her decision in a statement from her home town of Wasilla, Alaska.

“I’m taking my fight for what’s right in a new direction,” she said, as her family looked on.

Mrs Palin did not reveal what she intended to do after leaving office, and did not give an explicit reason for her decision not to run for re-election.

But in a written statement, she made it clear that once she had decided not to run again, she did not want to hang on in office until her term expired.

“Once I decided not to run for re-election, I also felt that to embrace the conventional Lame Duck status in this particular climate would just be another dose of politics as usual, something I campaigned against and will always oppose,” she said.

Mrs Palin’s revelation came out of the blue, as most Americans were turning to the celebration of Independence Day on 4 July.

She offered no single clear reason for stepping down, our correspondent adds, but the strongest clue was her depiction of what it had been like to be the subject of sustained attack by liberals since she appeared on the national stage.

June 30, 2009

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:33 am

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Iraqi celebrate 29 June 2009

Iraqis celebrated US troop withdrawals from cities in a way that has not been seen since the invasion

There was a pop concert and celebrations in the Baghdad zoo park, fireworks in the night sky, and jubilation in the streets.

Security forces were everywhere, all leave cancelled, for fear that the bombers might strike again.

But even the checkpoints were garlanded with flowers and flags, and many had music blaring.

They were marking the arrival of the last day of June, the deadline for US forces to be out of Iraqi towns and cities.

It’s been named Sovereignty Day, and declared a public holiday. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said it is a huge victory for Iraq.

But the fact is that for most people in Baghdad and elsewhere, 1 July will look very similar to 30 June or 29 June.

‘A few miles away’

American troops have rarely been seen on the streets in many areas in recent months.

Most of the tasks involving contact with the public have been taken over by Iraqi security forces.

But the withdrawal process did see the US troops either dismantling some 86 bases in the capital or handing them to Iraqi forces.

At one such base, Joint Security Station Comanche on the edge of Sadr City, American soldiers were toiling last week in the baking heat to meet the deadline.

People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy… Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country
Haidar al-Obadi
Shia MP

Huge concrete blast-walls were taken to pieces and trucked away in the dust to another base outside the city.

The US soldiers from the 1st Cavalry’s Ironhorse Brigade were packing their kitbags and backpacks, stashing them in MRAP armoured vehicles, and being driven away.

“Since we came here in February, our 2,300 men haven’t suffered a single fatality,” said the position commander, Capt Chris Clyde.

“We’re moving to another base a few miles away outside the city, and will continue working with our Iraqi partners from there.”

JSS Comanche is already a thing of the past.

It is no longer a military position. It has been totally dismantled. The building used as its command centre was handed back to its original owners, the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry.

‘Sacrifices’

On Monday, there was a symbolic ceremony at the old Iraqi Ministry of Defence building in the centre of Baghdad, the last US-held position to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities.

At another big ceremony and parade on Tuesday, Mr Maliki paid tribute to the “increasing credibility” of the Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi soldiers on parade 29 June 2009

He said the US withdrawal from the cities vindicated the position taken by Iraqi negotiators in the tough talks with the US that led to the agreement under which American troops should be entirely out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and that the withdrawal timeline would be adhered to.

As far as the towns and cities are concerned, while US forces remain on call outside city limits, their role in urban areas now changes to one of training and advising.

“This is a huge day both for the American and Coalition forces and for the Iraqis,” said the chief spokesman for the US-led Multinational Forces, Brig Gen Steve Lanza.

“This is the culmination of much hard work and sacrifice over the years, as Iraqi security forces now have primacy and control in this country.”

Election test

Much now depends on whether Iraqi forces can prevent the upsurge of violence which heralded the approach of the US withdrawals from triggering another spiral of sectarian violence – the clear aim of a series of deadly bomb attacks directed almost exclusively against Shia neighbourhoods and markets.

It was just such attacks which provoked Shia militias to take brutal revenge against Sunnis in 2006 and 2007, taking the country to the brink of civil war and disintegration.

US soldier in Baquba

More than 130,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq, with full withdrawal due in 2011

“Iraqi society, two years and more ago, looked into that abyss and rejected it, and that is the trend now,” said British ambassador in Baghdad Christopher Prentice, looking ahead to key general elections scheduled for January.

“The concentration and effort across Iraq now is on a very vigorous political campaign. Six months from a landmark election, this is almost unique in the region, a country that is focusing on coalition building, on real politics, and the question is which politicians can win the trust of the electorate to deliver better services and build on the improving security in the way that meets the national needs.”

The period leading up to the elections will be a real test for the Iraqi forces.

They still have 131,000 US troops standing by to help if they run into trouble.

But if they do have to call them back in, it will be seen as a reverse for the Iraqi government, and for President Barack Obama’s hopes of getting all of his forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 without leaving chaos in their wake.

Changed society

Last January’s provincial elections set an impressive model of democracy in action, with powerful parties in some cases losing out, but accepting the results with good grace.

Will they do so in future elections, when the Americans are no longer around to stiffen the resolve of security forces? Is democracy now sufficiently rooted that it will survive the US withdrawal?

Haidar al-Obadi, a Shia Member of Parliament and close adviser to the prime minister, believes it is.

“There is no going back to a dictatorship or a one-party system in the country now,” he said.

“People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy, it is an operation not only at the centre, but also in other areas, in the governorates and in the regions. Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country.”

June 22, 2009

Iran Guards vow protest crackdown

Iran Guards vow protest crackdown

Tear gas on the streets of Tehran (20 June)

Weekend violence has led many to abandon protest plans

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to crack down on any new street protests against the results of the country’s presidential election.

In a statement, the guards vowed to react in a “revolutionary” way to suppress unauthorised demonstrations.

The Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite security force, have close ties to the country’s supreme leader.

On Friday Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned protests, prompting street violence in which at least 10 people died.

The streets of Tehran were quieter on Sunday but new protests are planned for Monday.

Opposition supporters passing messages online said they planned to carry candles at a rally in Tehran in the evening in memory of those killed.

‘Revolutionary confrontation’

In a statement posted on their website, the Guards said their troops would break up street protests and force protesters from the streets.

“Be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij [pro-government militia] and other security forces and disciplinary forces,” the Associated Press news agency quoted the Guards as saying.

The clashes are getting bloodier every day
Behrooz, student, Tehran

The plain-clothed Basij militia was involved in quelling earlier protests during more than a week of demonstrations against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The weekend violence led many Iranians to abandon protest plans. One regular protester, a 20-year-old student called Behrooz contacted by the BBC several times in recent days, said he was concerned he would be attacked if he took part.

“My mother went to the demonstration on Saturday. She wasn’t hurt, but she saw guards attacking people and hitting them with batons,” he said.

“She is the bravest of us all, but I don’t think she will go out this afternoon (Sunday), because the clashes are getting bloodier every day.”

Media ‘vandalism’

Results showed Mr Ahmadinejad won the 12 June election by a landslide, taking 63% of the vote, almost double that of Mir Hossein Mousavi, his nearest rival.

Following complaints, the powerful Guardian Council, which oversees the electoral process, now says it has found evidence that more votes were cast in some constituencies than there were registered voters.

But the number had “no effect on the result of the elections”, a council spokesman said on Monday.

Speaking at a news conference, foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi accused Western governments of explicitly backing violent protests aimed at undermining the stability of Iran’s Islamic Republic.

“Spreading anarchy and vandalism by Western powers and also Western media… these are not at all accepted,” he said.

The BBC and other foreign media have been reporting from Iran under severe restrictions for the past week. The BBC’s permanent correspondent in Iran, Jon Leyne, was asked to leave the country on Sunday.

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

A protester throws an object towards police in Tehran, 20 June 2009

Saturday saw some of the worst violence since the election

Iranian authorities have deployed thousands of security officers on the streets of Tehran, after a week of mass protests over a disputed election.

Witnesses said there were no rallies in the capital on Sunday, a day after 10 people were reported killed in clashes between police and protesters.

State media said 457 people had been detained over Saturday’s violence.

The authorities have also continued a crackdown on foreign media – expelling the BBC’s Tehran correspondent.

The corporation confirmed Jon Leyne had been asked to leave the country, but said the BBC office in Tehran would remain open.

Campaign group Reporters Without Borders says 23 local journalists and bloggers have been arrested over the past week.

Roof-top chanting

The protests were sparked by the presidential election on 12 June, which officials said incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide.

Supporters of his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, believe the election was rigged and have demonstrated since the results were announced.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed Mr Ahmadinejad and made it clear in a speech on Friday that no further protests would be tolerated.

Some analysts interpreted the ayatollah’s speech as giving a green light for security forces to use live ammunition.

Iranian state TV reported that 10 people had died and 100 were injured when protesters and police clashed on Saturday.

On Sunday, thousands of security officers were out on the streets but protesters stayed away.

The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, in Tehran, says many residents of northern Tehran could be heard shouting from the rooftops “death to the dictator” and “Allahu akbar” on Sunday evening.

The chants have become a popular form of protest, and our correspondents says men, women and children joined in and Sunday’s chanting was much louder than on previous days.

Mousavi’s plea

Security forces continued to round up protesters on Saturday – with state media saying 457 people had been arrested.

Among the detained were several family members of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a powerful opponent of Mr Ahmadinejad.

Analysts said the arrests came as a surprise because Mr Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts – a cleric run group which has the power to remove the supreme leader.

All of Mr Rafsanjani’s relatives were reported to have been freed by Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, Mr Mousavi, whose supporters make up most of the protesting crowds, urged them to continue their rallies.

“Protesting against lies and fraud is your right. In your protests continue to show restraint,” a statement on his website said.

Analysts say Mr Mousavi’s statements and the street protests his supporters have organised represent the biggest challenge to the state in the Islamic republic’s 30-year history.


Are you in Iran? What do you think of the current situation? Are you taking part in the demonstrations?

If you have any information you would like to share us!

June 20, 2009

Iran protests ‘to go ahead’

Iran protests ‘to go ahead’

An Iranian man holds a poster of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the conclusion of the Friday prayers, in Tehran, Iran on Friday

Many thousands of Iranians attended the Supreme Leader’s Friday address

A key rally against Iran’s presidential elections will go ahead on Saturday – in defiance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – opposition sources say.

The wife of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and an aide to another rival candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, said the rally would go ahead.

Mr Mousavi later announced he would be giving a statement imminently.

Police warned they will arrest the leaders of any protest rallies, which they said would be illegal.

The warning follows an order from Ayatollah Khamenei on Friday that street protests should cease.

LATEST FROM TEHRAN
Jon Leyne
Jon Leyne

The opposition leader Mir Hussein Musavi has not made the direct statement himself but his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who has played a key role in his campaign, has said on her facebook site that the rally is going ahead.

If so, this will be the most direct challenge to the authority of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A huge turnout is expected. Iran and the world will be watching to see how the Iranian security forces respond.

On her page of the social networking website Facebook, Mr Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard said the rally would go ahead.

An aide to Mr Karroubi also told the news that a rally would take place and that it would be attended by Mr Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami – the former president, key reformist and ally of Mr Mousavi.

But the BBC’s Jon Leyne in Tehran says events are moving quickly, with the website of Mr Mousavi’s Kalameh newspaper saying he was due to make an imminent announcement.

Mr Mousavi had been expected, along with fellow challengers Mr Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai, to discuss more than 600 objections they had filed complaining about the poll at a meeting of the Guardian Council on Saturday.

But Iranian media reports suggest that neither Mr Mousavi nor Mr Karroubi turned up for the meeting.

Our correspondent says that, if true, it might suggest they have abandoned their legal challenge to the election results.

The Council, which is the body which certifies the election, had only offered a partial recount of disputed ballots from the election.

Police warning

Iranian officials have warned protest leaders not to launch fresh demonstrations.

Abbas Mohtaj – head of Iran’s State Security Council and also deputy interior minister – issued a direct warning to Mr Mousavi.

Iranian pro-government supporters burn a US flag in Tehran

“Should you provoke and call for these illegal rallies you will be responsible for the consequences,” he said in a statement.

State TV also broadcast a warning by a senior police commander warning that police would not countenance any more street protests.

Official results of the 12 June presidential poll gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a resounding 63% of votes, compared to 34% for his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The result triggered almost daily street protests – a challenge to ruling authorities unprecedented since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The human-rights group Amnesty International says it believed about 10 people had been killed.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama warned Iran that the “world is watching” events there. He expressed concern at “some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made”.

Ayatollah’s address

A new rally on Saturday would directly challenge an order from Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader and highest authority.

“Straight challenge is not acceptable after the election,” Ayatollah Khamenei told thousands of Iranians who massed to hear him on Friday.

“This is challenging democracy and election itself. I want every side to put an end to this method. If they don’t then the responsibility of its consequences, the riots should be shouldered by those who do not put an end to it.”

The ayatollah insisted the Islamic Republic would not “cheat voters” – and blamed foreign powers, in particular the UK, for fomenting the unrest.

He said “bloodshed” would result if the protests went ahead.

The rally was attended by President Ahmadinejad. But former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a close associate of Mr Mousavi, and open critic of President Ahmadinejad – did not attend.

Although the Supreme Leader controls many levers of power, Mr Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to elect the leader, supervise him, and theoretically even to dismiss him, our correspondent says.

Behind the scenes, he says, there appears to be both a political battle between two veterans of the Islamic Revolution, but also a titanic dispute about the whole future of Iran, whose outcome no-one can predict.


Are you in Iran? What do you think of the current situation? What do you think of the ayatollah’s speech?

If you have any information you would like to share with us

December 27, 2008

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Israeli F-16 bombers have pounded key targets across the Gaza Strip, killing more than 200 people, local medics say.

Most of those killed were policemen in the Hamas militant movement, which controls Gaza, but women and children also died, the Gaza officials said.

About 700 others were wounded, as missiles struck security compounds and militant bases, the officials said.

Israel said it was responding to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza and would bomb “as long as necessary”.

They were the heaviest Israeli attacks on Gaza for decades. More air raids were launched as night fell.

Map

The operation came days after a truce with Hamas expired.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said “it won’t be easy and it won’t be short”.

“There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, condemning what he called Israel’s “excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians” and “the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants”.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair and the French EU presidency also urged an immediate ceasefire.

Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets against Israeli towns from inside the Gaza Strip; large numbers of rocket and mortar shells have been fired at Israel in recent days.

In a statement, Israel’s military said it targeted “Hamas terror operatives” as well as training camps and weapons storage warehouses.

Hamas bases destroyed

A Hamas police spokesman, Islam Shahwan, said one of the raids targeted a police compound in Gaza City where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place.

At least a dozen bodies of men in black uniforms were photographed at the Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City.

Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood
Fawzi Barhoum
Hamas spokesman

Israel said operations “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary”.

It is the worst attack in Gaza since 1967 in terms of the number of Palestinian casualties, a senior analyst told the BBC in Jerusalem.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni defended the air raids, saying Israel had “no choice”. “We’re doing what we need to do to defend our citizens,” she said in a television broadcast.

Israel hit targets across Gaza, striking in the territory’s main population centres, including Gaza City in the north and the southern towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Hamas said all of its security compounds in Gaza were destroyed by the air strikes, which Israel said hit some 40 targets.

Mosques issued urgent appeals for people to donate blood and Hamas sources told the BBC’s Rushdi Abou Alouf in Gaza that hospitals were soon full.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – whose Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 – condemned the attacks and called for restraint.

But Hamas quickly vowed to carry out revenge attacks on Israel in response to the air strikes, firing Qassam rockets into Israeli territory as an immediate reply.

One Israeli was killed by a rocket strike on the town of Netivot, 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Gaza, doctors said.

“Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood,” spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was reported as saying.

The air strikes come amid rumours that an Israeli ground operation is imminent.

Calls for ceasefire

World leaders urged both sides to halt the violence.

Palestinians flee the scene of an air strike in Rafah

Civilians were caught up in the air strikes in heavily-populated Gaza

A White House spokesman said the United States “urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza”.

“Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, added.

The UK Foreign Office said: “We urge maximum restraint to avoid further civilian casualties.”

At least 30 missiles were fired by F-16 fighter bombers. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that about 60 warplanes took part in the first wave of air strikes.

Egypt opened its border crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah to absorb and treat some of those injured in the south of the territory.

Most of the dead and injured were said to be in Gaza City, where Hamas’s main security compound was destroyed. The head of Gaza’s police forces, Tawfik Jaber, was reportedly among those killed.

Residents spoke of children heading to and from school at the time of the attacks, and there were fears of civilian casualties.

Israeli security officials have been briefing about the possibility of a new offensive into Gaza for some days now.

But most reports centred on the possibility of a ground offensive, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not expected to authorise any operation until Sunday at the earliest.

Although a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel was agreed earlier this year, it was regularly under strain and was allowed to lapse when it expired this month.

Hamas blamed Israel for the end of the ceasefire, saying it had not respected its terms, including the lifting of the blockade under which little more than humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza.

Israel said it initially began a staged easing of the blockade, but this was halted when Hamas failed to fulfil what Israel says were agreed conditions, including ending all rocket fire and halting weapons smuggling.

Israel says the blockade – in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 – is needed to isolate Hamas and stop it and other militants from firing rockets across the border at Israeli towns.

Pakistani mourners honour Bhutto

Pakistani mourners honour Bhutto

Pakistan has marked a year since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto with a two-minute silence, while thousands of mourners visited her mausoleum.

President Asif Ali Zardari, her widower, used the occasion to call for peace and democracy in Pakistan and the resolution of problems through talks.

Analysts say the call was also aimed at India, which blames the recent attack on Mumbai on Pakistani militants.

Mrs Bhutto died in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi after an election rally.

Mourning ceremonies focused on the Bhutto family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, in the southern province of Sindh.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says he expects an independent inquiry into her death to be set up soon.

Tears and flowers

Local police officials in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh told news agencies that about 150,000 people had travelled to the site.
They came from around the country, by train, plane, car and even on foot, chanting Bhutto slogans, some wailing and beating their chests in an outpouring of emotion reports.

Mourners kissed her grave and laid flowers at the mausoleum, where official ceremonies were delayed because the site was shrouded in winter mist and fog for much of Saturday morning.

These were her devoted supporters, but many other Pakistanis were also feeling the loss of the charismatic politician, famous abroad and at home, our correspondent says.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani paid tribute in a televised address, saying Mrs Bhutto had “worked for poor segments, for poor people and she was the only ray of hope for the people of this country, she was a hope for the region”.

Mr Zardari delivered a televised speech from the family home in Naudero, Sindh.

“Dialogue is our biggest arsenal,” he said.

“The solution to the problem of the region… is politics, is dialogue and is democracy in Pakistan.

“I want to tell the oldest democracy and the largest democracies of this world: listen to us, learn from us. We have lost our people, we do not talk about war, we do not talk about vengeance.”

Thousands of police officers have been deployed in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, amid fears that Mr Zardari could also be targeted during his visit to the mausoleum.

Multiple crises

Eulogies to Bhutto gloss over her mixed record when in power and her controversial decision to make a deal with Pakistan’s military leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, in order to return from exile, our correspondent adds.
Benazir Bhutto. File photo
Many Pakistanis say they sorely miss Benazir Bhutto

But her assassination by suspected Islamist militants shook the nation to the core and although Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and her husband swept to power in the wake of her death, there is still a feeling she left a vacuum that has not been filled, she says.

Pakistanis are missing her political experience and international stature, as they face crises ranging from a raging Islamist insurgency to dangerous tensions with India, our correspondent notes.

Pakistan has redeployed some troops from the north-west to strengthen its border defences, while India has advised its citizens against travelling to Pakistan.

On Friday, the UN secretary general expressed hopes that a UN investigation into Mrs Bhutto’s assassination could be set up in the near future and said he was committed to helping Pakistan’s search for “truth and justice”.

Earlier this year, British detectives investigating the fatal attack in Rawalpindi said Mrs Bhutto had died from the effect of a bomb blast, not gunfire.

Their account matched that of the Pakistani authorities.

But Bhutto’s party has insisted she was shot by an assassin and accused the government of a cover-up.

Are you in Pakistan? Have you been attending any of the ceremonies today? Send your comment

November 4, 2008

No apathy as US election day looms

No apathy as US election day looms

After nearly two years of digesting speeches and slogans, of being bombarded with adverts and requests for money, of coming to terms with the possibility of the first non-white or female president, Americans are nearly there.

Pedestrians walk along a pavement that is lined with dozens of election signs

One thing is certain: Americans are ready for this election

They voted in record numbers in the primary elections and now look poised to do the same in the general election. In fact, they already have been.

In more than 30 states, early voting began several weeks ago. It has not been uncommon to see large lines snaking around entrances to libraries, community centres and other voting locations.

If there is one thing that can confidently be said, it is that Americans are ready for this election.

At a time of economic crisis, with opinion polls consistently showing that large numbers of people are unhappy with the direction their country is taking, there is little sense of apathy.

‘Mind-boggling’ costs

And, after eight years of an increasingly unpopular Republican presidency, the advantage is with the Democratic Party – and the party’s candidate, Barack Obama.

Barack Obama campaigns in Ohio

Mr Obama has mustered a record-breaking fundraising operation

He has raised mind-boggling amounts of cash – far in excess of even the most generous estimates – enabling him to compete across the country and to afford extravagant amounts of advertising in these final few weeks, culminating in the half hour “infomercial” which aired at prime time on several US networks last week.

Of course, it’s not just the money. Throughout the months that I’ve covered this election, the levels of excitement and enthusiasm at Obama rallies have consistently outstripped those of his opponents, both Democratic and Republican.

Only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – both historic candidates, in their differing ways, have managed to inspire crowds, in a similar fashion.

Transformational

But the question is: Will this enthusiasm, enhanced voter registration and substantial financial advantage be carried over into the polling stations?

If it is, Sen Obama has a real chance of winning many of the states, which have crossed from safe Republican territory into the “toss up” column; places like Indiana and Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate when the current one was just three years old.

The election could be transformational, not just in terms of bringing a non-white president to the White House, but in re-drawing the electoral map, at the same time.

John McCain campaigns in Florida

Behind in the polls, Mr McCain insists will be the comeback kid

There are plenty of potential obstacles, though. Some are visceral.

When it comes down to it, how many Americans will find it hard to put a cross next to a man with an exotic name and mixed-race background?

Will Mr Obama, for all his inspiring rhetoric and calm demeanour be seen as too aloof and professorial?

Will Americans prefer the earthier, more “familiar-looking”, Mr McCain; a feature of public life for several decades, with an inspiring story of war time heroism – and reputation for bridging partisan divides?

And what of the polls, which have shown a fairly consistent Obama lead for the past few weeks? Will that keep Democratic voters away, through a sense of complacency, or, perhaps, discourage Republicans?

Palin effect

Certainly, the McCain campaign has made much of the tightening numbers in recent days and in places, such as Pennsylvania – a must win state for the Republican candidate.

There, the Arizona senator’s argument that Mr Obama is too inexperienced in foreign affairs and too left-wing in his economic views is gaining traction.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Higher than usual number of voters leads to long queues
First-time voters are confused by the process, adding to delays
Voters are challenged over their registration or identity at the polls
Polling stations experience problems with voting machines
High turn-out leads to shortage of ballot papers
Householders with a repossession notice denied right to vote

Another big unknown is the Palin effect. Mr McCain’s running mate has inspired and disappointed in equal measure. She is likely to be a reason for many on both sides to turn out.

So, will the pro or anti forces be the most energised?

And whose get out the vote efforts will be the most successful? The Republicans have a good track record in this and the McCain camp seems to have kept cash aside for the final push, but the Obama campaign has broken new ground in its organisational powers.

The experience of the long primary campaign is likely to come in very handy.

Undecided voters

And what of those undecided voters? The sense I get, is that many are people who voted for President Bush four years ago, but are still unconvinced by Mr McCain – either for reasons of ideology or temperament.

If that’s the case, Mr Obama doesn’t need to win them over. He’d be happy if they simply stayed at home.

At this point, the odds remain in favour of an Obama win. But it’s not the bookmakers who will decide the result of the election; it’s the American people.

And after the longest, most expensive – and, according to many veteran observers – most inspiring election campaign in living memory, they are about to make that decision.

Rarely can their choice have seemed so consequential for the country, or the world.

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