News & Current Affairs

August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

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Obama set to reveal running-mate

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Barack Obama on the campaign trail on 21 August in Chester, Virginia

Speculation has been rife about who will share Mr Obama’s platform

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is expected to reveal his choice of vice-presidential running mate within hours.

He has told journalists he has made his decision, which will be revealed by text message to the party’s senators and supporters, and journalists.

Democrats gather for their party convention in Denver on Monday.

Mr Obama and his running mate are set to make their first campaign appearance together in Illinois, on Saturday.

“I’ve made the selection, that’s all you’re gonna get,” Mr Obama told reporters while campaigning in Virginia on Thursday.

Text alert

In an interview with USA Today newspaper, the Illinois senator said he had selected a running mate who was independent and would challenge him in the White House.

JUSTIN WEBB’S AMERICA
Hang on, I think that’s a text coming in

He added that he had opted for someone who would help him strengthen the economy, and was also ready to act as president.

But Mr Obama gave no clue as to whether he had notified his preferred running mate yet.

It is possible the Obama camp might keep the name of the vice-presidential selection a secret until just before the appearance in Springfield on Saturday but, realistically, that seems unlikely, says the BBC’s North America editor, Justin Webb.

The expectation is that during the course of Friday a text message will be received by those who have signed up for it, revealing the name.

Surprise in store?

The conventional wisdom is that vice-presidential candidates do not swing elections, our editor reports.

John McCain, file pic

But Mr Obama’s choice is interesting because it will reveal a little more about the style of the man and how willing he is to be adventurous.

Most commentators believe he will play it safe, opting for a governor, perhaps Tim Kaine of Virginia, or a political veteran like Senator Joe Biden.

Some Democrats are hoping he has a surprise up his sleeve – a Hillary Clinton or an Al Gore.

Mr Obama’s rival, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, has reportedly not settled on a running mate.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are reported to be under serious consideration for the role.

August 8, 2008

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Courtesy BBC

Sani, Lili and Dani Nikolic in their room at the Greek K-For camp

The three women thought they would be left alone in Urosevac after the war because there were no men in their house

In the fifth and final piece by BBC journalists on life in Kosovo today, Patrick Jackson meets three Slovenian-Serb women who intend to be the bane of K-For’s life until they regain their ancestral home.

Their great-grandfather built Urosevac, the Nikolic daughters like to say, so how can they leave it now?

Sani (Santipa), the very image of mildness and physical slightness, beams mischievously at the memory of how she floored a US soldier with her karate skills, the day K-For came to evacuate her family.

I am not saying she is over 60, because her disabled younger sister Lili (Liljana) reminded me, when I inquired, that you must never ask a lady her age. A smile of assent crossed the mask-like face of their blind mother Dani (Daniela).

However, the soldier’s commanding officer was certainly impressed by Sani’s resilience, telling her she was “as tough as a Texan lady”, according to Lili.

The Americans evacuated them from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) on 18 March 2004, to save them from Albanian rioters, who then destroyed the house.

But the Nikolic women have refused to join the thousands of other non-Albanians who fled (most of them in June 1999).

They argue that K-For failed to defend their property and removed them against their will, so it should take them back.

And that is how they come to be living today inside a Greek army base outside Urosevac.

Sickbay

The sole civilians to live on a base in K-For’s eastern sector have a medical ward to themselves at Camp Rigas Fereos.

The Nikolic family's cooking arrangements in the camp

The facilities in the room meet the family’s basic needs

It is a large, spotlessly clean room equipped with the bare essentials such as a fridge and a microwave oven, but no television set or radio.

From the window they can see only the camp and the mountains in the distance. Some paper religious icons are stuck to the blank white walls.

What personal effects they have seem all to come from charity.

Asked what she misses most from her home, Daniela says her family photographs and her jewellery, including her wedding ring from her husband who died before the war (she had taken it off to wash her hands the morning they were evacuated).

There is also the antique furniture, her library of 1,800 “beautiful books in five languages” and her paintings, especially a 17th-Century Italian Madonna she brought with her from her native Slovenia when she married her Serb husband.

Theirs was a wealthy family in its time, Lili explains. Their great-grandfather helped found Urosevac, a late 19th-Century town that arose around the new Belgrade-Thessaloniki railway, after he persuaded the Turkish authorities to let him build there.

Thessaloniki played a new role in the Nikolic family’s history in 2004, when Greek K-For, having sheltered the evacuees at Camp Rigas Fereos for four months, transferred them to its military hospital.

All three women needed specialised medical help.

A military ambulance parked outside the family's room

Life for the women at the base is punctuated by bugle calls

During the evacuation, Lili, paralysed in one leg since a car crash in her youth, was struck by a rioter’s stone, which broke her bad knee.

Daniela was already going blind and Sani suffered from arthritis.

Nearly five years of constant stress had also taken its toll.

Their house was placed under 24-hour K-For guard in the summer of 1999 after intruders robbed and beat them.

The last time Sani had left the building was in October 2000, when she slipped past the guards to go to the nearby market.

Some teenage boys recognised her as a Serb and started to beat her. She fought back with her karate, but she says she “did not want to hurt them”. She returned home covered in blood.

The boys told the police she had fired a gun at them, she adds, and an Albanian policeman turned up at the house. But when he saw the K-For guards, he just said “no problem” and left, Sani says.

In November last year, the women left the hospital in Thessaloniki and returned to Camp Rigas Fereos at their own request.

Private property

While they were in Greece, new buildings were erected illegally on the site of their property, a prime location in the centre of Urosevac.

Sani Nikolic in her room at the Greek K-For camp
We have just this one card left to play, and we are playing it now. We have nothing else to lose
Sani Nikolic

Sani says she was phoned by an Albanian when she was still in Thessaloniki, and advised not to try to come back because there was “no room” in the town for her family now.

“I said to him: ‘You Albanians want to join the EU and from what I know, the English and the Americans respect private property very much. I don’t want yours, I just want my own back. And nobody can deny me that’.”

The UN refugee agency has offered them a new home in a village enclave near Urosevac but they are refusing.

“What would I do in a village?” asks Sani, an architect by profession.

“I have never lived in a village. I know nothing about agriculture. I am ill.

“If we agreed to be relocated to a village enclave somewhere, we know that we, like the other IDPs [internally displaced persons], would never get our home back.”

The newly elected mayor of Urosevac has taken an interest in their case and visited them at the camp this June. They gave him a file of property deeds.

The mayor pledged to ensure their information was processed through the legal system, K-For says.

Last card

K-For also says the Nikolic family cannot stay on the base indefinitely.

After all the family has suffered, and given their ill-health, age and isolation from other Serbs, I ask the women if it is not better to yield and accept a peaceful existence somewhere other than Urosevac – perhaps in Greece, which has they say, offered them asylum.

How can these three women, so proud and outspoken about their Serbian identity, even think of living again in a town that war turned against them?

They admit themselves that they feel uncomfortable in the camp, ever grateful to the Greek army for its hospitality and ever embarrassed about getting in the soldiers’ way.

Sani accepts the difficulty of returning now but her sense of grievance is greater.

“I will be frank,” she says.

“We know that we are like a thorn in the side for the Greek camp because as long as we are here, we are a problem they have to resolve.

“But this is the last card we have to play. We have nothing else to lose.”

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

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We hope the games will show our guests China today, not China thirty years ago

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“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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